“In the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.”
—Barack Obama, from his February 10, 2007, presidential announcement
I grew up in Mississippi in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the civil rights and women’s rights movements. My interest in advocacy and political activism was born in those volatile and challenging years. I saw my mother’s efforts in the civil rights movement, which also influenced me. My mother, Nellie Johnson, went from paying poll taxes to becoming the first female and first African-American election commissioner in Tunica County, Mississippi. When 18-year-olds got the right to vote, no one I knew was more excited than I was. I cast my first vote for President in 1972.
Meeting State Senator Barack Obama
I attended nursing school at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and eventually moved to Chicago, Illinois, to work as a home health nurse. I first met then–Illinois State Senator Barack Obama in 2000. The Democrats had won a majority vote in the Illinois State Senate, and the Senate president, Emil Jones, Jr., had appointed Mr. Obama as Chair of the Illinois Senate Health and Human Services Committee. At the time, I was serving as chair of the Health Policy Committee of my local National Black Nurses Association chapter. I invited Mr. Obama to address our members at a monthly meeting. At this meeting, I realized I was in the presence of a truly special public servant.
We were impressed with how Senator Obama explained his ideas for improving the health care system in Illinois, his views on the numerous problems that the state was facing as well as how they could be fixed, and his ability to explain complex issues. Later in his career, during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama would be criticized for being “too professorial.” But our nursing group appreciated how he educated us. When Mr. Obama left our meeting, he challenged the nurses who had attended to hold him accountable for following through on his promises to work to improve the health care system in Illinois.
Prior to the Democrats gaining control of the Illinois State Senate in 2001, Mr. Obama was one of few Democrats to get legislation passed. He earned my respect by demonstrating excellent negotiating skills, reaching out and involving those who disagreed with him, and having the willingness to compromise with Republicans.
Mr. Obama served three terms in the Illinois Senate from 1997 to 2004. While serving, he was involved with health care and social issues that were important to me. He sponsored, co-sponsored, or supported legislative initiatives including expansion of the State Child Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), which made Illinois the only state at that time to cover all children from birth to 19 years old; the Hospital Report Card Act, which made it possible for consumers to learn how their hospitals fared on key quality measures; ethics legislation related to campaign finance reform; expansion of the state Earned Income Tax Credit to assist low-income working people; legislation to curb racial profiling during traffic stops; and legislation to overhaul the state’s death penalty laws. Mr. Obama co-sponsored the Abandoned Newborn Baby Act which allowed mothers of newborns to bring their unwanted babies to any fire or police station, hospital, or other safe havens without fear of prosecution. The National Black Nurses Association provided input and testimony at the hearings on the health care legislation. I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the Abandoned Newborn Baby Act. It was passed by the legislature and signed into law in 2001 by former Governor George Ryan.
My Work on Mr. Obama’s Campaign for U.S. Senate
I, and others in Illinois, recognized that Senator Obama had a bright future. I was not surprised when he announced in 2003 that he was going to run for the United States Senate seat being vacated by Peter Fitzgerald. We also recognized that Mr. Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign would have to overcome major obstacles. Mr. Obama had little name recognition outside of Illinois, he had no money (senate campaigns cost millions of dollars), he had a funny-sounding name, and he was a liberal who was against the war in Iraq. Early in the Democratic primary, Mr. Obama was not the clear favorite.
Fundraising for the Senate Campaign
To help raise the critical “early money” for Mr. Obama’s Senate campaign, I turned to my personal address book. I called every single person in the book whose phone number was current—even those who I had not seen or heard from in years! I worked to convince my friends, colleagues, and family members to support Mr. Obama in the Senate race and to work for his election victory (Figure 75-1). Fortunately, I have a large network of family and friends across the country who I viewed as potential supporters. I went through my file of business cards and contacted many people, including members of professional organizations such as the Cook County Physicians Association, the Chicago Medical Society, and the Cook County Bar Association. I networked with fellow church members and members of the Chicago Chapter of the National Black Nurses Association. Basically, anyone I had met in my entire adult life got to listen to my Obama-for-Senate pitch. My friends and colleagues from outside of Illinois were not exempt. I encouraged them to support Mr. Obama because he had the potential to become only the fifth African American to serve in the U.S. Senate. I held an “Obama for Senate” fund-raiser at my home early in the campaign. Family members, friends, professional colleagues, and members of the Chicago Chapter of the National Black Nurses Association attended. Many attendees had never contributed to a political campaign before. We were able to speak briefly with candidate Obama and hear his views on the issues before he was whisked off to the next campaign event. This event in my home raised several thousand dollars of seed money and helped me reach the fund-raising goal of $3000 that I had pledged to meet. I asked people who could not attend to send contributions so I could submit them to the campaign treasurer. By doing this, I felt that there was a greater chance people would follow through on their pledges to provide contributions and that I would be able to document the total amount of contributions I was acquiring. About 20 to 30 people attended these events.