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Obama forged path as Chicago community organizer

In a presidential campaign focused on the future, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama spend a lot of time talking about their pasts.

Both lean heavily on tales of early, formative experiences - she running a law clinic in Arkansas, he as a community organizer in Chicago - to show they understand the problems of average people.

Now the race for the Democratic nomination is coming down to its decisive contests, with Clinton locked in a do-or-die struggle to wrest that prize from an increasingly confident Obama, who appears poised to make history.

Voters in battleground states such as Ohio and Texas are still trying to take the measure of the two contenders - and for both candidates, these vignettes are a critical part of forging bonds with fellow Democrats.

Obama, for instance, grew up in Hawaii and briefly lived in New York - but returns time and again in speeches to the streets of Chicago's far South Side, where he tried to help residents of the city's forgotten neighborhoods build a better life.

He offers that time to illustrate his real-life experience - a gritty counterpoint to Clinton's time in Washington, a way to combat charges that his stints in the Illinois state legislature and the U.S. Senate don't add up to the foundation to be president.

For Clinton, her time in Arkansas is a key component of the argument that her three decades of public service have prepared her to be president on Day One.

As the first woman with a serious chance to lead the nation, it's a way for her to demonstrate how she fought to improve the lives of families and children.

CHICAGO - An unlikely visitor came calling one day in 1986 at the offices of the tony Chicago conservation group Friends of the Parks: a gangly, boyish community organizer from the rough-and-tumble far South Side named Barack Obama.

Dressed in a black leather bomber jacket, he made his pitch softly and earnestly to the group's community planner. Parents in the blighted, minority neighborhoods where he worked were desperate for safe, inviting play areas for their kids, but they lacked clout. Friends of the Parks had clout but sought ways to increase its efforts for minorities.

Together, Obama argued, the two groups could persuade Chicago's recalcitrant parks district to improve green areas on the far South Side, which had been devastated by steel-plant closings.

The meeting was scheduled to last 30 minutes but stretched to two hours, recalls Johnny Owens, the community planner. "He had an air of authority and a presence that made you want to listen," Owens said.

It was the first step in an informal partnership between Obama's constituents and Friends of the Parks that led to renovations and increased security in a handful of far South Side parks and playgrounds.

Ensuring that swings have seats and sandboxes are free of glass might not seem requisite skills for a man who could be president of the United States. But associates say Obama's approach to the unglamorous task illustrates his style as a community organizer - an experience he cites as "the best education I ever had," qualifying him to unite a racially and socially fractured nation and "create change from the bottom up."

"Barack realized that to get things done, you need to mobilize people in a collaborative way," said Gerald Kellman, the Chicago community organizer who hired Obama to work in the far South Side in 1985.

"He was a bridge-builder," recalled Friends of the Parks president Erma Tranter.

A tour of Obama's far South Side haunts and interviews with past associates paint a somewhat more complex picture.

A few critics claim Obama, now 46, exaggerates his accomplishments, particularly in spearheading asbestos cleanup at a low-income housing project. He omits from his account of that fight a longtime community activist who many people say played a significant role.

And for all his emphasis on the value of grassroots organizing, Obama eventually decided he also needed a law degree to enact lasting change, attending Harvard University. Many associates also view his seven years in the marbled halls of the Illinois State Senate and three years in the U.S. Senate to be as formative as his three years in far South Side trenches.

Further blurring the picture are his descriptions of community organizing in his youthful memoir, "Dreams From My Father," in which he admits he disguises names, creates composite characters, switches some chronologies and uses "approximations" of dialogue.

But what is clear is that Obama got a tough lesson in confronting entrenched political interests - one he relentlessly uses in trying to cast Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, as the establishment candidate.

"While I was working on those streets, watching those folks see their jobs shipped overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart," Obama told Clinton in a debate in January. "I was fighting these fights."

What is also clear is that by the time he left for Harvard in 1988, he already had created a buzz.

"Even back then people were talking about how one day he could be president," said Michael Evans, associate director of the Developing Communities Project, the nonprofit organizing group Obama led here. Evans, who joined the DCP two years after Obama left the group, said he didn't initially understand the excitement over "this skinny young dude" whose nickname was "Baby Face." Then Obama invited him to lunch during a visit to Chicago from law school. By the time the lunch ended, Evans said, "I had decided the sky was his limit."

Obama laughed off a shot at the White House, saying he was contemplating a run for mayor, Evans said.

In "Dreams From My Father," Obama writes that his only goal was "organizing black folks at the grass roots for change" when he took the $1,000-a-month job at the DCP. He was 23 and the only paid staffer.

"He was very idealistic - so idealistic that it was a problem initially," recalled Kellman, who hired Obama during their first in-person interview, at a Lexington Avenue diner in Manhattan. For example, Obama was often surprised that local politicians or pastors would come after him if his ideas threatened their vested interests, Kellman said.

Among other insults, detractors branded Obama as "an Ivy League elitist" and "a pawn of the Jews and Catholics," Kellman said. Many early DCP supervisors were Jewish or Catholic but the group soon drew black, evangelical pastors as well.

Learned skills that would help later

By the time he left Chicago, Obama was much more pragmatic, Kellman said. And he had picked up several influential contacts, including the outspoken pastor of the Afrocentric congregation he joined, the Trinity United Church of Christ. He also picked up the organizing skills that have made his grassroots campaign operations the strongest of any presidential hopeful.

The son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, Obama was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia and "struck me as incredibly comfortable with diversity," Kellman recalled. His unusual background, he said, also made him "used to being an outsider," an asset on the far South Side, where black, Latino and white communities were reeling from plant layoffs and government neglect.

Not all of Obama's associates agreed. "A good community organizer never feels like an outsider in part because you want people to trust you and to bring them in," said Robert Ginsburg, an environmental activist who worked on the South Side during Obama's years at the DCP.

Obama's task was to help far South Side residents press for improvements ranging from pothole repair to job training. Working out of a two-room office of a Roman Catholic church in the Roseland neighborhood, the neophyte went door-to-door, seeking to make 25 new contacts a week as he heard community concerns.

"Ninety percent of the people in the U.S. would be terrified to walk the streets that Barack Obama walked," said Greg Galluzzo, whose Gamaliel Foundation served as a Chicago umbrella organization for groups including DCP.

The cigarette-smoking, basketball-playing Obama, who favored spinach salads over burgers, looked so young and skinny that older women made it a cause to feed him. He wore his hair in a short Afro and dressed simply in button-down shirts and slacks.

He worked so hard that friends joke they had to coax him out to parties. Despite his seriousness, friends say he was a sought-after bachelor with a quick sense of humor.

Obama shared a one-bedroom apartment with his gray cat, Max, in Hyde Park-Kenwood - the racially and economically diverse University of Chicago neighborhood where he lives today in an elegant Georgian revival house with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters. Back then he owned little more than a bed, a table and crates stacked with fiction and social science books.

Martin Luther King Jr. his hero

One of his favorite tomes was "Parting the Waters," a study of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. At Kellman's suggestion, he also read "The Power Broker," Robert Caro's portrayal of New York master-builder Robert Moses as a ruthless visionary.

If Moses provided a cautionary tale in unchecked power, King was Obama's hero. The young South Side worker's mantra, then as now, was that "ordinary people can do extraordinary things."

Fans say he helped them do just that.

"He did not do our work for us, he taught us how to do it," said Loretta Augustine-Herron, a far South Side schoolteacher who worked with Obama. "We would come away knowing we could accomplish something."

Obama trained his pupils almost obsessively and watched them like a den mother when they met with local officials. If they became rowdy, he would glide over to sit among them as a signal to quiet down.

"Barack would tell us, 'Don't get angry. It will just stray your focus,'" Augustine-Herron said. When frustrated, she said, he would put his head down and shake it before saying, "Come on, people, this is serious."

Obama earned a reputation for being civil during confrontations with authorities, according to Illinois state Sen. Emil Jones Jr. He met Obama when the community organizer was leading about 30 picketers to protest soaring high-school dropout rates. The rally took place near Jones' office and he invited the group in.

"I was used to different groups coming in to state there was a problem. What impressed me about Barack was that he also had a list of recommended solutions," Jones recalled.

Their discussion led to DCP obtaining public funds for South Side at-risk high school students.

Jack Wuest, executive director of Chicago's Alternative Schools Network, marveled at Obama's ability to obtain the grant. "There were a lot of groups trying to get that money," he said.

Old ally assisted current campaign

Obama got more than the money. Jones, now president of the Illinois State Senate, helped launch Obama's political career. More recently, he rounded up 28 of the legislature's 37 Democrats to campaign for his protege in Ohio, which along with Texas holds a Democratic primary Tuesday.

Yet some critics claim one of the causes Obama promoted best during his organizing years was his own. The most cited case is his role in a campaign that forced authorities to remove the carcinogen asbestos from a problem-plagued public housing project. The complex of decrepit, two-story row houses, called Altgeld Gardens, was built for black World War II veterans and ringed by toxic waste sites and one of the nation's biggest landfills.

In his book, Obama implies he helped discover the asbestos and played a leading role in its removal, starting with a bus trip he organized for a group of tenants to confront city authorities on the issue. "I changed as a result of that bus trip, in a fundamental way," he writes. " ... That bus ride kept me going, I think. Maybe it still does."

Obama does not mention a recognized Altgeld Gardens activist who also had been investigating asbestos there.

In an office with a leaky ceiling and walls decorated with photos of her meetings with former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, the activist, Hazel Johnson, 73, said she had discovered the asbestos long before Obama latched onto the issue. Obama, she insisted, was taking undue credit "to make himself look good."

"I liked Obama and I still like him, but I ain't gonna lie for him," she said.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who at that time was a Chicago alderman, was quoted last year as saying he was "offended" that anyone would detail the asbestos controversy without mentioning Johnson.

Rush, a former Obama rival who now endorses him, declined interview requests. In a statement, he said he didn't want to waste time "looking in the rear-view mirror" and was "satisfied" with Obama's account of why Johnson was not in his book. He did not retract his previous statement.

Obama also declined interview requests. His staff says the book is a personal account and not a history book. Suggestions that Obama was trying to take sole credit for asbestos removal are "false" and "misleading," spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Several community organizers and Altgeld Gardens tenants confirmed Johnson was working on asbestos but said Obama organized residents to act. "He got people to vote with their feet" on the issue, organizer Madeleine Talbot said. At the time, Talbot worked at the social action group ACORN and initially considered Obama a competitor. But she became so impressed with his work that she invited him to help train her staff.

At the peak of the asbestos controversy, Obama worked on it "10 to 12 hours a day," said community organizer Linda Randle, who helped him on the issue.

Impact on Latinos and whites

In rallies, Obama often says he helped prevent far South Side blacks, Latinos and whites from turning on each other after they lost their jobs. Many residents and community organizers say his work primarily involved African-Americans. But DCP projects such as renovating parks did benefit Latinos and whites as well.

Moreover, Obama held "weekly brainstorming sessions" with his Latino counterparts and worked closely with them on several important projects, said Phil Mullins, the head of UNO, a social action group in Chicago that represents Mexican-Americans. One was a job-training program. Another was a successful campaign to stop a backroom deal between a waste management company and local leaders to expand a landfill into wetlands surrounding southeast residential areas.

Obama supporters say he helped plan actions including a surprise visit by a group of whites, blacks and Latinos to a room above a bank where waste management officials were meeting with a local official to discuss the landfill expansion. The group surrounded the meeting table while one activist made a statement chiding local officials for making deals behind closed doors. Then the protesters filed out.

"We were trying very hard to connect neighborhoods and he was part of that," Latina organizer Mary Gonzales said.

Soon after the landfill protests, Obama left for Harvard. But he took steps to keep his group going, hiring away his ally Owens from Friends of the Parks to groom as his replacement and returning regularly to conduct training workshops.

"Barack didn't just look back, he reached back," said Augustine-Herron.

Not all of Obama's far South Side achievements endured. Unemployment and despair still plague Altgeld Gardens. The swings work in Palmer Park, a Roseland park he helped renovate, but drug dealers and thugs have reclaimed much of it as their own.

The Obama legend proved more resilient. Owens, among others, marvels at how larger-than-life his friend has grown.

Learning that Obama would speak at Chicago State University shortly before he announced his bid for the presidency last year, "I went just hoping to say hello and shake his hand," Owens recalled. "Instead of just shaking my hand he pulled me toward him and hugged me."

For a couple of minutes, Owens said, Obama locked his gaze on him and the two spoke as if they were alone. Then the crowd swelled around Obama like a sea and pulled him away.

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