Ill. could make national history with Obama win

November 4, 2008 3:30:20 PM PST
Illinois has a strong record of voting African-American candidates into high political offices. A win for Sen. Barack Obama Tuesday night would seal Illinois' place in helping to make national history.

When Roland Burris walked to his South Side polling place late Tuesday morning only the older workers and voters at the precint recognized the 71-year-old lawyer.

"How soon they forget. You get pushed aside when you are no longer in office and quite easily," said Burris, former Ill. comptroller and attorney general.

Burris became the first African-American statewide office-holder in Illinois when in 1979 he was sworn in as state controller. One of only a handful of blacks to do so anywhere in the country in the 1980s, he won re-election statewide two times, then a term as attorney general in 1991.

"People treated me statewide the same way they did Barack Obama nationwide. They said, 'Roland, you're crazy,'" said Burris.

Then in 1992, Carole Mosely Braun was elected statewide to serve in the U.S. Senate and in 1998, Jesse White won as Illinois secretary of state. So by the time Barack Obama won his U.S. Senate seat in 2004, it was nothing new for Illinois voters to look beyond race and choose an African-American candidate for statewide office.

"Illinois seemed to be kind of a state where people measure you on your ability and not so much on your race or your ethnicity," said Jessie White, Ill. secretary of state.

Eighty-nine year-old activist Timuel Black, who in 1963 led the Chicago contingent that marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, did not believe he'd live long enough to see an African-American win the U.S. presidency. But he's not surprised that possibly the first, would hail from Chicago, Illinois.

Roland Burris, who was born and raised in downstate Centrailia, admitted his political ambition led him to Chicago to run for office. He voted with a special self-satisfaction knowing he led the way for so many other black candidates, including a possible American president.

"I was in office when he came in the 1980s and I assume he began to assess the lay of the land politically and start saying, well, this might be a good place to sink my roots," said Burris.


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