FEATURED:

Obama’s crime votes are fodder for rivals

Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden jokes about Obama memes: 'Barack did the first friendship bracelet, not me' Slain Saudi columnist upends 'Davos in the Desert' Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa MORE’s (D-Ill.) votes on crime issues during his tenure in the Illinois state Senate could prove harmful to his effort to win the White House. His opponents and critics are mining his short voting record for campaign fodder.

A review by The Hill found a number of votes by Obama on bills dealing with drug, gang and gun-control issues that could be used by opponents seeking to derail his presidential candidacy.

Observers have suggested Obama could be vulnerable to accusations that he is soft on crime.
ADVERTISEMENT

State law enforcement officials who worked with the senator at the time were hesitant to criticize Obama, saying only that while he sometimes voted for “individual rights” rather than for facilitating law enforcement, in other areas he was very supportive and was “always” open to discussion.

In 1998, Obama was one of only three senators to vote against a proposal making it a criminal offense for convicts on probation or on bail to have contact with a street gang.

In 2001, Obama voted against a measure that would have expanded the penalties for some gang activity to include the death penalty. The bill was vetoed by then-Gov. George Ryan (R ) not long after he had issued a moratorium on the death penalty in the state.

Obama, at the time, said the bill would unfairly target minorities, stating, “There’s a strong overlap between gang affiliation and young men of color … I think it’s problematic for them to be singled out as more likely to receive the death penalty for carrying out certain acts than are others who do the same thing.”

Obama opposes the death penalty except for terrorists, serial killers and child-murderers, but his campaign added that he does not support the death penalty as it is currently administered in this country.

On a 1999 vote making adult prosecution mandatory for aggravated discharge of a firearm in or near a school, the senator voted “present.”

He explained the vote, saying, “There is really no proof or indication that automatic transfers and increased penalties and adult penalties for juvenile offenses have, in fact, proven to be more effective in reducing juvenile crime or cutting back on recidivism.”

And in 2001, Obama voted “present” on a bill that would increase penalties for trafficking in Ecstasy and other designer drugs.

The senator questioned the length of some drug penalties when compared to other crimes, noting that selling 15 tablets of Ecstasy was a Class X felony, as was raping a woman at knifepoint.

The first-term senator faces critics who question his experience and qualifications, but analysts think his short stint in the U.S. Senate is an advantage because it means he had less time to cast controversial votes that could be used against him.

But his time in the Illinois state Senate has not yet been scrutinized as thoroughly, largely because his 2004 U.S. Senate opponents, Jack Ryan first and Alan Keyes second, both imploded before mounting a serious challenge or rolling out their campaigns’ opposition research.

His only federal race before 2004, a 2000 congressional run against Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), resulted in defeat.
Political analyst Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report, said some of these state Senate votes have the potential to cause problems for a candidate who has been largely untested in his rapid political ascent.

“There is no question that Obama is a phenomenon, and that his U.S. Senate Democratic primary and general election wins were more byes than victories,” Cook said. “I don’t think a negative TV spot was run against him in the primary or general election. That means that his state legislative voting record has never been the subject of close scrutiny, and that there are some troublesome votes, either votes that are controversial or very difficult to explain.

“How he handles these votes will tell us a lot about the long-term viability of a candidate who has never won a really tough, big race.”

During Obama’s campaign against Rush, the senator missed a vote on the Safe Neighborhoods Act that would have made illegal gun possession a felony, and Ryan blamed Obama and two other lawmakers for missing the vote and dooming the legislation, though it failed 31-17.

Reports from the time said the senator was being counted on by Ryan as a solid vote for the gun-control measure, but the senator was in his native Hawaii at the time for Christmas.

The report says Obama was scheduled to be back in Springfield for the vote, but one of his daughters became ill, forcing him to change plans.

A contemporary Chicago Sun-Times report quotes Obama as saying, “I take my legislative responsibilities extremely seriously … In the midst of a congressional race, I’m well aware of the potential risk of missing a vote, even if that vote doesn’t wind up making the difference on a particular piece of legislation. But at some point, family has to come first.”
The Obama campaign rejected the notion that the senator might be vulnerable to accusations that he is soft on crime, issuing a statement defending the senator’s record on such issues.

“Obama is a strong proponent of tougher measures to fight crime and provide more resources to local law enforcement officers,” the statement read. “His record shows a long and consistent commitment to protecting the communities of Illinois and ensuring the safety of the families he represents.”

Ted Street, president of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police — a group that endorsed Obama in 2004 — said the senator was immensely helpful in working with police organizations when it came to death-penalty reform.

Laimutis Nargelenas, a lobbyist for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said that while Obama did at times vote on the side of “individual rights … [rather] than the ability of law enforcement to get things done,” he was always an independent vote who was very thoughtful on law-and-order issues.

Nargelenas said particularly with legislation allowing undercover officers to record suspects and profile based on race, Obama was considerate of the needs of law enforcement and always looking for ways to balance the needs of police with the “rights of the individual citizen.”

Since Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate, he has been helpful in restoring proposed funding cuts for various police programs, Nargelenas aid.

“When he said he was going to do something, you could always trust him on his word,” Nargelenas said.