Before Obama hit national stage, his work foreshadowed a political future

After eight years in office, President Barack Obama is set to give his last speech as the nation's leader in a farewell address Tuesday evening in Chicago, where he says it all started.

But before he entered the race for the nation's highest office, coined the slogan "Yes, we can" or celebrated his historic presidential victory in Grant Park, the Chicago Tribune revisited Obama's political rise from a relatively unknown community organizer to lawyer to elected official.

One of the first stories published in the Tribune that mentions Barack Obama appeared in 1985, the year he moved to Chicago. He worked with the Calumet Community Religious Conference, which was a recipient of a $40,000 grant awarded by The Campaign for Human Development, a nationwide Roman Catholic antipoverty program. Obama said in the story that the grant was to be used to assess skills of unemployed workers and to aid them in finding jobs.

Obama spoke to the Tribune a number of times before he hit the national stage. In several instances, his first name was misspelled and later corrected. Here are five excerpts from the newspaper's archives, many of which foreshadow his political future. Read the story here.

Harvard Law Review president

In 1990, at age 28, Obama was named the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, the nation's most prestigious student legal journal.

"People don't feel that they can have much impact," Obama said at the time. "I want to get people involved in having a say in how their lives are run. More and more of that needs to be done."

He said he planned to spend a couple of years practicing law after he graduated from Harvard and most likely return to community organizing — and maybe politics. "I'll definitely be coming back to Chicago," he said. Read the story here.

Minority law partners

A few months later, Obama spoke to the Tribune about a survey that showed law firms were slow to hire minority partners, with minorities representing only nine of the 250 new partners brought into Chicago's 21 top law firms.

As a Harvard Law School student, editor of the Harvard Law Review and summer associate at Chicago-based Hopkins & Sutter firm, Obama said the problem stemmed from how law firms recruited students.

"If these law firms want to solve these problems, they should go beyond Yale and the University of Chicago to recruit," Obama said. "I think there are a lot of excellent minority law students who have families that can't incur a $25,000 debt for a law school education. So they don't go to nationally ranked schools." Read the story here.

State Senate seat

State Sen. Alice Palmer decided to throw her name in for the congressional seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds, who was convicted of sex crimes. But after losing to Jesse Jackson Jr. in a Democratic primary in 1995, Palmer sought re-election to the state legislature. By then, she had backed Obama as her successor.

"Since she endorsed me, I can always use, 'Even my opponent wants me' as a campaign slogan," Obama said in 1995.

Palmer withdrew her bid for the office after signatures on her nominating petitions were challenged. Obama went on to claim victory in 1996 and served in the Illinois Senate until he was elected in 2004 to the U.S. Senate. Read the story here.

Congressional run

In 1999, Obama set his sights on a congressional run against Bobby Rush, an incumbent who was seeking a fifth term after losing the mayoral election months earlier as a challenger to Richard M. Daley.

"I think an elected official's vision is more important than his seniority," Obama told the Tribune. "Rep. Rush was unconcerned with seniority when he ran against his prior incumbent because he felt he would bring more energy to the office, and that's what I intend to do."

Obama came in second behind Rush in the 2000 primary, claiming only 30 percent of the vote. It would be four more years before he won a U.S. Senate seat. Read the story here.

Missing a vote

Obama was visiting his grandmother in Hawaii around Christmastime in 1999 and missed a vote on a gun control bill during a special session in Springfield. He was criticized for it. Obama said his 18-month-old daughter Malia was sick with the flu, and he decided to stay with his family.

"We have a lot of politicians who like to talk about family values. At some point you have to live those families values," he said. Read the story here.

lvivanco@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @lvivanco

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