Former President Barack Obama won his first election by throwing all of his opponents off the ballot based on technicalities. In his first race for office—seeking an Illinois state Senate seat in 1996—Obama used the election rules to eliminate his Democratic competition.
Obama employed Chicago's rules to invalidate voting petition signatures. He ultimately disqualified all four Democratic primary rivals and three minor candidates, Wall Street Journal reported.
The action denied each of them a place on the ballot. His move cleared the way for Obama to run unopposed on the Democratic ticket in a heavily Democrat district.
Yes, President Donald Trump's mild-mannered, lionized predecessor played hardball. The darling of the modern Democratic Party first entered public office not by leveling the playing field, but by clearing his path to victory.
The Obama campaign reportedly called CNN's 2008 coverage "a hit job," insisting that the publication talks to a "state representative who supports Obama." According to an Obama spokesman at the time, this individual would be objective.
But when reporters called this person, she said she could not recall details of the petition challenges, who engineered them for the Obama campaign, or why all the candidates were challenged, CNN alleged. Records of the challenges are no longer on file for review with the election board.
CNN found then-Illinois legislature candidate Will Burns who was just a young Obama volunteer during the time in question.
Burns served as one of the contingents of volunteers and lawyers tasked with examining each and every petition submitted by the other candidates—including those of incumbent state Sen. Alice Palmer, a longtime progressive activist from the city's South Side.
When Palmer was clobbered in the November 1995 special congressional race, her supporters asked Obama to fold his campaign so that she could easily retain her state Senate seat. Obama not only refused to step aside, but he filed challenges that nullified Palmer's hastily-gathered nominating petitions, forcing her to withdraw.
"The rules are there for a reason," Burns told CNN. "One of the first things you do whenever you're in the middle of a primary race, especially in primaries in Chicago, because if you don't have signatures to get on the ballot, you save yourself a lot of time and effort from having to raise money and have a full-blown campaign effort against an incumbent," Burns said.
Burns stated that he believed that Obama did not enjoy mastering the bare-knuckle tactics of Chicago electoral politics. "It was not something he particularly relished," Burns said. "It was not something that I thought he was happy about doing." But Obama still wiped the floors clean.
In 2007, Obama commented to the Chicago Tribune: "To my mind, we were just abiding by the rules that had been set up."
"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," Obama recalled.
Obama even granted that "there's a legitimate argument to be made that you shouldn't create barriers to people getting on the ballot." But the offensive maneuvers were justified, he continued, by obvious flaws in the opposing signature sheets.
Longshot contender Gha-is Askia claimed that the Obama team challenged every single one of his petitions on "technicalities."
Askia expressed his dismay over how Obama muscled his way into office. "It wasn't honorable," Askia said. "I wouldn't have done it."
If names were printed instead of signed in cursive writing, those indicated were declared invalid. If signatures were sufficient but the person gathering the signatures was not properly registered, those petitions were also thrown out.
Askia came up 69 signatures short of the required number to be on the ballot. Obama's conduct undermined his public persona as a champion of the little guy and the crusader for voter rights, Askia contended.
"Why say you're for a new tomorrow, then do old-style Chicago politics to remove legitimate candidates?" Askia told the Chicago Tribune. "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?"
Fresh from his work as a civil rights lawyer and head of a voter registration project that expanded access to the ballot box, Obama launched his fledgling campaign on the grounds that he sought to empower disenfranchised citizens.
But Obama's overwhelming legal onslaught signaled his impatience to assume office, even elbowing aside the elder stateswoman and the dreams of starry-eyed minorities.