CHICAGO, Il. — The day after New Year's 1996, operatives for Barack Obama filed into a barren hearing room of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
There they began the tedious process of challenging hundreds of signatures on the nominating petitions of state Sen. Alice Palmer, the longtime progressive activist from the city's South Side. And they kept challenging petitions until every one of Obama's four Democratic primary rivals was forced off the ballot.
Fresh from his work as a civilrights lawyer and head of a voter registration project that expanded access to the ballot box, Obama launched his first campaign for the Illinois Senate saying he wanted to empower disenfranchised citizens.
But in that initial bid for political office, Obama quickly mastered the bare-knuckled arts of Chicago electoral politics. His overwhelming legal onslaught signaled his impatience to gain office, even if that meant elbowing aside an elder statesman like Palmer.
A close examination of Obama's first campaign clouds the image he has cultivated throughout his political career: The man now running for president on a message of giving a voice to the voiceless first entered public office not by leveling the playing field, but by clearing it.
One of the candidates he eliminated, long-shot contender Gha-is Askia, says now that Obama's petition challenges belied his image as a champion of the little guy and crusader for voter rights.
"Why say you're for a new tomorrow, then do old-style Chicago politics to remove legitimate candidates?" Askia asked. "He talks about honor and democracy, but what honor is there in getting rid of every other candidate so you can run scot-free? Why not let the people decide?"
In a recent interview, Obama granted that "there's a legitimate argument to be made that you shouldn't create barriers to people getting on the ballot."
But the unsparing legal tactics were justified, he said, by obvious flaws in his opponents' signature sheets. "To my mind, we were just abiding by the rules that had been set up," Obama recalled.
"I gave some thought to ... should people be on the ballot even if they didn't meet the requirements," he said. "My conclusion was that if you couldn't run a successful petition drive, then that raised questions in terms of how effective a representative you were going to be."
Asked if the district's primary voters were well served by having only one candidate, Obama smiled and said, "I think they ended up with a very good state senator."
In the early 1990s, Chicago's 13th Legislative District was served in the Illinois Senate by Palmer, who was working as a community organizer in the area when Obama was growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia. She risked her safe seat to run for Congress and touted Obama as a suitable successor, according to news accounts and interviews.
But when she got clobbered in that November 1995 special congressional race, Palmer supporters asked Obama to fold his campaign so she could easily retain her state Senate seat.
Obama not only refused to step aside, he filed challenges that nullified Palmer's hastily gathered nominating petitions, forcing her to withdraw.
Had Palmer survived Obama's challenge, he would have faced the daunting task of taking on an incumbent senator. Palmer's elimination marked the first of several fortuitous political moments in Obama's electoral success: He won the 2004 primary and general elections for U.S. Senate after tough challengers imploded when their messy divorce files were unsealed.
Obama contended that in the case of the 1996 race, in which he beat token opposition in the general election, he was ready to compete if necessary.
"We actually ran a terrific campaign up until the point we knew that we weren't going to have to appear on the ballot with anybody," Obama said. "I mean, we had prepared for it. We had raised money. We had tons of volunteers. There was enormous enthusiasm."
And he defended his use of ballot maneuvers: "If you can win, you should win and get to work doing the people's business."
At the time, though, Obama seemed less at ease with the decision, according to aides. They said the first-time candidate initially expressed reservations about using challenges to eliminate all his fellow Democrats.
"He wondered if we should knock everybody off the ballot. How would that look?" said Ronald Davis, the paid Obama campaign consultant who filed objections to Obama's rivals as a 13th District citizen.
In the end, Davis filed objections to all four of Obama's Democratic rivals at the candidate's behest.
Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, was published during the summer of 1995 to warm reviews. He was working at a small but influential legal firm, teaching constitutional law as a University of Chicago adjunct professor and sitting on the boards of charities.
At the same time, the South Side's political map was thrown up for grabs that summer when then-Rep. Mel Reynolds was convicted of sex crimes and a special election was called to fill his congressional seat.
Palmer joined the race and, according to multiple accounts, introduced Obama as the successor for her Illinois Senate seat.
"She said, 'I found this wonderful person, this fine young man, so we needn't worry that we'd have a good state senator,"' said former 5th Ward Democratic committeeman Alan Dobry, who volunteered to help both Palmer and Obama that year.
In July 1995, Obama announced he was planning to run for Palmer's seat. He filed papers creating his fundraising committee a month later and officially announced his candidacy in September.
He emerged that winter as a gifted campaigner who finished hectic workdays to pull on thermal underwear and knock on South Side doors.
In impromptu street-corner conversations and media interviews, he disparaged local politicians for putting self-preservation ahead of public service. At the last house on a dark block, "he would start a discussion that should have taken five minutes and pretty soon someone was cooking him dinner," said paid campaign consultant Carol Anne Harwell.
Then Palmer's congressional bid collapsed. On Nov. 28, 1995, she placed a distant third behind political powerhouses Jesse Jackson Jr., who holds that congressional seat today, and current state Senate President Emil Jones Jr.
Palmer didn't fade quietly away. Citing an "outpouring" of support, she up-ended the political landscape by switching gears and deciding to run in the March 1996 primary for her state Senate seat.
But she had two big problems. To get on the ballot, Palmer needed to file nominating petitions signed by at least 757 district voters - and the Dec. 18 deadline was just days away.
And then there was Obama, the bright up-and-comer she'd all but anointed.
Obama's aides said he seemed anguished over the prospect of defying Palmer. "I really saw turmoil in his face," Harwell said.
Obama sought advice from political veterans such as 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle and then-15th Ward Alderman Virgil Jones, who say they urged him to hold his course.
"I thought the world of Alice Palmer," said state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, now the House majority leader. But "at that point she had pulled her own plug."
According to Palmer, it was without her knowledge that her supporters initiated discussions to persuade Obama to step aside. They invited him to the home of now-deceased state Rep. Lovana "Lou" Jones. Obama arrived alone.
"It was a brief meeting," said Timuel Black, a Palmer friend who had advised Obama when hewas a young community organizer in the mid-1980s.
Obama didn't try to justify his decision to reject Palmer's plea, Black said.
"He did not put it in inflammatory terms; he just did not back away. It was not arguments; it was stubbornness," Black said. "Barack had by then gone ahead in putting together his own campaign, and he just didn't want to stop."
Just in time for the Dec. 18, 1995, filing deadline, Palmer submitted 1,580 signatures - about twice the minimum required. That day, Obama lashed out at her, telling the Chicago Tribune she had pressured him to withdraw.
"I am disappointed that she's decided to go back on her word to me," he said.
Obama campaign aides also responded that day - but quietly, and out of the limelight.
Davis and Dobry marshaled volunteers and began poring through the nominating petitions of Palmer and the three lesser-known Democrats, interviews show.
"We looked at those petitions and found that none of them met the requirements of the law," Dobry said. "Alice's people, they'd done it in a great hurry. Almost all her petitions were signed a day or so before the deadline."
According to Davis, Palmer "had kids gathering the names. I remember two of her circulators, Pookie and Squirt. If you can't get good signatures, what does that say about what kind of campaign you have?"
They urged Obama to file legal challenges.
Obama already knew civil rights attorney and fellow Harvard Law graduate Thomas E. Johnson, who had waged election cases for the late Mayor Harold Washington and had offered Obama informal legal advice since the days of Project Vote.
With Johnson's legal help, Obama's team was confident. They piled binders of polling sheets in the election board office on the second floor of City Hall, and on Jan. 2, 1996, began the days-long hearings that would eliminate the other Democrats.
Little-known candidate Marc Ewell filed 1,286 names, but Obama's objections left him 86 short of the minimum, and election officials struck him from the ballot, records show. Ewell filed a federal lawsuit contesting the board's decision, but Johnson intervened on Obama's behalf and prevailed when Ewell's case was dismissed days later.
Ewell and other Obama rivals had relied on early 1995 polling sheets to verify the signatures of registered voters - but Obama's challenges were decided at least in part using the most recent, accurate list, records show.
Askia filed 1,899 signatures, but the Obama team sustained objections to 1,211, leaving him 69 short, records show.
Leafing through scrapbooks in his South Shore apartment, the perennially unsuccessful candidate acknowledges that he paid Democratic Party precinct workers $5 a sheet for some of the petitions, and now suspects they used a classic Chicago ruse of passing the papers between themselves to forge the signatures. "They roundtabled me," Askia said.
Palmer to this day does not concede the pervasive flaws that Obama's team found in her signatures. She maintains that she could have overcome the Obama team's objections and stayed on the ballot if she had more time and resources.
It was wrenching to withdraw, she said. "But sit for a moment, catch your breath, get up and keep going. I'm a very practical person. Politics is not the only vehicle for accomplishing things." She became a special assistant to the president of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is now retired.
Obama said he has not been in touch with Palmer since 1996. "No, not really, no," he said.
Front Section, Pages 10 on 04/08/2007