CNN report accusing Obama of “getting a little dirty” in challenging political opponents ignored facts undermining allegations

CNN anchor Don Lemon teased Drew Griffin's report about Sen. Barack Obama's 1996 run for the Illinois state Senate by asserting, "[I]f his very first political campaign is any indication, the Illinois senator isn't opposed to getting a little dirty." But Griffin, whose report detailed the 1996 Obama campaign's successful tactic of challenging the petitions for other candidates to appear on the ballot, failed to note that a Chicago Tribune article he cited had reported that the former Obama opponent he interviewed “now suspects” some of the signatures on his petition were forged.

During the May 31 edition of CNN Newsroom, anchor Don Lemon teased reporter Drew Griffin's “Special Investigations Unit” report about Sen. Barack Obama's 1996 run for the Illinois state Senate by asserting, "[I]f his very first political campaign is any indication, the Illinois senator isn't opposed to getting a little dirty." As Lemon spoke, on-screen text read: “Obama Gets Dirty.” The report -- which also aired on the May 29 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 -- and a related article stated that Obama ran unopposed in the Democratic primary race for the state Senate seat representing Chicago's 13th District because he successfully challenged his potential Democratic opponents' petitions to appear on the ballot. Griffin cited the case of potential Democratic candidate Gha-Is Askia, who when interviewed by Griffin, said his signatures were dismissed because of “technicalities.” But Griffin did not mention that an April 4, 2007, Chicago Tribune article, cited in both Griffin's report and the article, reported that Askia “now suspects” some of his signatures were forged.

According to the Tribune:

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, Askia, a 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 among themselves to forge the signatures. “They round-tabled me,” Askia said.

In listing reasons for which Askia's signatures were allegedly invalidated, Griffin reported: “If names were printed instead of written in cursive, they were kicked off, campaign workers told CNN. If signatures were good but the person collecting the petitions wasn't properly registered, all of those signatures were kicked off.”

Griffin's report and the related article also noted that Obama challenged the signatures on the petition of then-incumbent Illinois state Sen. Alice Palmer. Palmer had lost a special election for a U.S. congressional seat and subsequently launched a re-election bid for her 13th District's state Senate seat, despite her own reported admission that she told Obama she wouldn't run. Griffin reported: “After losing a bid for Congress, Alice Palmer decided to try to keep her Senate seat. She would have been tough competition for a newcomer, but Obama planned to beat her before she ever got on the ballot.” Yet neither Griffin's report nor the article explained that some of Palmer's signatures were reportedly invalidated because the signers allegedly lived outside the Senate district. By contrast, a January 21, 1996, Chicago Weekend article reported that there were several problems with the signatures, including that “registered voters signed the petitions but don't live in the 13th district”:

Jackie Saul, election specialist with the state board of elections, said each candidate must submit a minimum of 757 signatures and Palmer went over the number with 81 pages filed.

Palmer said they obtained 1,580 signatures for her re-election, but some of those names were deleted because of several problems with the signatures that don't go along city guidelines.

Some of the problems include printing registered voters name instead of writing, a female voter got married after she registered to vote and signed her maiden name, registered voters signed the petitions but don't live in the 13th district.

Saul said the most common problem with petitions is people sign petitions but they're not registered or they may be registered but don't live within the boundaries of where the election is being held.

In addition, discussing the complaints filed against the Obama's 1996 opponents, the Associated Press reported in an April 24 article that Ron Davis, “a South Side political activist who helped Obama in the 1996 contest” and who “formally filed the complaints, said the problems included signatures from people living outside the district or who weren't registered to vote. Some petitions were circulated by ineligible campaign aides, making every signature invalid.”

Further, the article uncritically reported that supporters of Palmer “said that she never anointed Obama as her successor,” despite reports from the time that Palmer supported Obama's candidacy for the 13th District seat before she lost the special election primary for Congress. From the article:

Obama supporters claim that Palmer has only herself to blame because she indicated she would not run for the 1996 state Senate and instead aimed for Congress. After losing in that bid, she returned to running for the state Senate seat, a move Obama supporters claim amounted to reneging on a promise not to run.

But Palmer supporters, who did not want to be identified, said that she never anointed Obama as her successor and that the retelling of the story by Obama supporters is designed to distract from the fact he muscled his way into office.

The Tribune article cited in both Griffin's report and in the article quoted Palmer saying that she gave Obama an “informal nod” and that “I certainly did say that I wasn't going to run” for re-election (although she disputed formally endorsing Obama):

In recent interviews, Obama and Palmer agreed that he asked her whether she wanted to keep her options open and file to run for her state Senate seat as a fallback in case her congressional bid failed.

Obama says he told her: “We haven't started the campaign yet.”

“I hadn't publicly announced,” he said. “But what I said was that once I announce, and I have started to raise money, and gather supporters, hire staff and opened up an office, signed a lease, then it's going to be very difficult for me to step down. And she gave me repeated assurances that she was in [the congressional race] to stay.”

Obama “did say that to me,” Palmer says now. “And I certainly did say that I wasn't going to run. There's no question about that.”

But beyond that, the private discussions they held in 1995 are shrouded today in disputed and hazy memories.

Obama said Palmer gave him her formal endorsement. “I'm absolutely certain she ... publicly spoke and sort of designated me,” he recalled.

Palmer disputes that. “I don't know that I like the word 'endorsement,' ” she said. “An endorsement to me, having been in legislative politics ... that's a very formal kind of thing. I don't think that describes this. An 'informal nod' is how to characterize it.”

Newspaper reports at the time stated that Palmer had endorsed Obama. Chicago Weekend reported on December 25, 1995:

Palmer had originally endorsed Attorney Barack Obama to fill her seat, but changed her mind, she said, because of the tremendous support and draft by constituents.

“I had said I would help some-one else and that is one of the reasons I was reluctant but the draft was so big,” Palmer stated.

The Chicago Tribune reported on December 19, 1995:

Palmer had set the stage for her conflict last summer when she launched her congressional campaign and declared that she would forgo re-election for a second term in the state Senate; she endorsed Obama for the seat Sept. 19.

The legislator said she backed Obama at a time when she expected to be running against former Rep. Mel Reynolds in the March primary. But Reynolds was convicted and imprisoned for sexual assault and obstruction of justice. [Jesse] Jackson [Jr.] then defeated Palmer and three others in the primary before winning the general election to fill the seat.

Palmer said that she was backing Jackson, who filed Monday for the March primary, for re-election and that an outpouring of encouragement from her South Side legislative district led her to run for re-election.

“I am disappointed that she's decided to go back on her word to me,” Obama said. He argued that Palmer's action was “indicative of a political culture, where self-preservation comes in rather than service.”

From the May 31 edition of CNN Newsroom:

LEMON: Is Barack Obama seasoned enough to fight in the hostile environment of a general election campaign? Well, if his very first political campaign is any indication, the Illinois senator isn't opposed to getting a little dirty. A CNN special investigation is next.


LEMON: Well, you may be surprised to hear about Barack Obama's early days of campaigning for state Senate in Illinois. Drew Griffin from CNN's Special Investigations Unit uncovers a tough-fighting candidate out to get rid of the competition.

[begin video clip]

GRIFFIN: He's running on change. No more politics as usual.

OBAMA: But we know in our hearts we are ready for change.

GRIFFIN: But here on Chicago's South Side, in his first race for office, Barack Obama relied on old, bare-knuckle political tactics to eliminate a popular incumbent and launch his political career in the Illinois state Senate. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass says it may not sound like the Obama way, but it is the Chicago way, and back in 1996, Obama used it to full advantage.

KASS: To use lawyers to knock out the -- you know, this is not the message of Barack Obama: Let everyone join in democracy and our ideas -- the better ideas shall triumph, right? No, that was Chicago politics. Knock out your opposition, challenge their petitions, destroy your enemy, right?

GRIFFIN: Obama had been a grassroots organizer in this gritty neighborhood, registering thousands to vote before going off to Harvard Law School. He came back to Chicago to work as a lawyer and saw a chance to run for state Senate. But in his first race for office, he made sure Democratic voters had just one choice: him.

ASKIA: He wasn't honorable. Right? That's what I'm saying. I wouldn't have done it.

LEMON: Gha-Is Askia is no longer in politics. The race against Obama was his last. He and two other Democrats were kicked off that ballot before a single vote was cast. How?

Obama sent a team of lawyers and volunteers to the Chicago Board of Elections and challenged the petitions of his opponents. You needed 757 signatures of registered voters to become a candidate. Askia said he gathered 1,899. But when the Obama team was through challenging his signatures, addresses, and voter registrations, Askia came up 69 signatures short.

ASKIA: I fought for every single -- what -- they was going on technicalities.

GRIFFIN: If names were printed instead of written in cursive, they were kicked off, campaign workers told CNN. If signatures were good but the person collecting the petitions wasn't properly registered, all of those signatures were kicked off.

ASKIA: Yeah. So, it was -- it was technicalities.

GRIFFIN: Jay Stewart with Chicago's Better Government Association says there is nothing illegal about what Obama did. In fact, it's the way politics are played in Chicago.

STEWART: He came from Chicago politics. “Politics ain't beanbag,” as they say in Chicago. You play with your elbows up and you're pretty tough and ruthless when you have to be. Senator Obama felt that's what was necessary at the time; that's what he did. You know, does it fit in with the rhetoric now? Perhaps not.

GRIFFIN: But Askia wasn't the incumbent. When we come back, how Barack Obama also wiped out the rest of the competition.

[end video clip]


LEMON: All right. Call it politics as usual or the Chicago way. But in part two of CNN's special investigation, Drew Griffin uncovers how Barack Obama's campaign team took down the incumbent in his first race for a state Senate, a seat in Illinois. It is not pretty.

[begin video clip]

GRIFFIN: Barack Obama was a relative unknown in 1996 when he first ran for office. To win, he had to get around the five-year incumbent, Alice Palmer. After losing a bid for Congress, Alice Palmer decided to try to keep her Senate seat. She would have been tough competition for a newcomer, but Obama planned to beat her before she ever got on the ballot.

Will Burns was one of the volunteers assigned to challenge Alice Palmer's signatures.

BURNS: One of the first things you do whenever you're in the middle of a primary race -- or any race, especially in primaries in Chicago -- you look at the signatures. 'Cause if you don't have the 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.

GRIFFIN: And you guys successfully kept her from running. You also did your job on everybody else on that ballot.

BURNS: There are rules. I mean, if you don't have --

GRIFFIN: But I know there are rules.

BURNS: Right.

GRIFFIN: But let me be real cynical. The guy that registered 150,000 voters, the all-inclusive candidate, let everybody have their vote -- make sure he's the only guy on the ballot in 1996.

BURNS: The rules are there for a reason.

GRIFFIN: We have had multiple conversations with the Obama campaign about this story. In one of them, the campaign called this a rehash. In another, a hit job. We were denied an interview with the campaign and instead, the campaign directed us to a quote the senator gave the Chicago Tribune last year.

“To my mind, we were just abiding by the rules that had been set up,” Obama told the Tribune. “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.”

But in that same Tribune article, Obama had this appraisal of that incumbent, Alice Palmer: “I thought she was a good public servant.”

Alice Palmer, who is now campaigning for Hillary Clinton, told CNN she doesn't want to talk about her elimination from the ballot by Obama.

BURNS: I don't think he enjoyed it. It was not something that he particularly relished. It was not something that I thought he was happy about doing.

GRIFFIN: But the Tribune's John Kass says Obama did it anyway. And in 1996, Alice Palmer, who, along with her husband, Buzz -- two legendary South Side activists -- learned you didn't have to be a Chicago native to play like one.

KASS: Here comes Barack Obama out of Harvard, using political tactics of the machine to get rid of the Palmers and then calling himself progressive. And I guess -- listen, if you want to believe that, believe that, you know?

Just remember this: Richard M. Daley is the boss of Chicago machine. His spokesman was David Axelrod. Their candidate is Barack Obama. Who speaks for Barack Obama? David Axelrod. There's no such thing as coincidences. Chicago politics doesn't have coincidences. And it wasn't a coincidence to get rid of Alice Palmer that way.

GRIFFIN: Alice Palmer never ran for public office again. Drew Griffin, CNN, Chicago.