State Sen. Kwame Raoul new 'it guy' in Springfield

For more than a year after he was appointed to fill then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's seat in the Illinois Senate, Kwame Raoul did all he could to avoid contact with his predecessor.

He would not call Obama for advice unless he absolutely had to. He skipped public appearances where the two might run into each other or, worse, be photographed together.

"I had a sense early on that people, probably including Barack, were concerned about whether I was trying to coattail on his success," Raoul said. "And I was really sensitive about that."

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State Sen. Kwame Raoul new 'it guy' in Springfield

Chicago Tribune

For more than a year after he was appointed to fill then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's seat in the Illinois Senate, Kwame Raoul did all he could to avoid contact with his predecessor.
He would not call Obama for advice unless he absolutely had to. He skipped public appearances where the two might run into each other or, worse, be photographed together.
"I had a sense early on that people, probably including Barack, were concerned about whether I was trying to coattail on his success," Raoul said. "And I was really sensitive about that."
Nearly seven years later, Raoul finds himself the new "it guy" in Springfield. He has led high-profile Democratic pushes to ban the death penalty, reform pensions, overhaul the state's workers' compensation system and redraw legislative boundaries.
Even some Republicans want a piece of him. House Republican Leader Tom Cross appeared with Raoul last month to promote legislation that would require schools to adopt policies regarding concussions and head injuries for athletes.
"People think I am crazy," said Raoul of his workload, which he says sent him to the hospital twice in the last year with stress-related heart arrhythmia. "I don't want to just be down there saying, 'I'm a senator.'"
The 46-year-old son of Haitian immigrants first became interested in politics while an undergrad at DePaul University during the Council Wars in the 1980s. After Mayor Harold Washington's unexpected death, Raoul joined thousands of protesters outside City Hall as aldermen held a tumultuous meeting that eventually saw Eugene Sawyer chosen as mayor.
Raoul, who wanted then-Ald. Timothy Evans as mayor, wound up being hours late for his job as a bill collector so he could pass out "No Deals" signs at the rally.
"I subsequently got fired from a job I wasn't very good at and didn't like, but I remember going home and watching the council proceedings and thinking, 'Wow, we've got to do better than this.'"
Raoul twice ran and lost for alderman against Toni Preckwinkle, who's now the Cook County Board president. She eventually became an ally and backed him for Obama's state Senate seat in 2004 — against Obama's wishes at the time.
Raoul has a law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law and a year ago went to work in the Chicago office of Michigan-based Miller Canfield. The firm, which also employs Paul Durbin, son of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is serving as an underwriters' counsel on a $3.5 billion bond sale the state issued in January 2010.
Raoul said he's never made any calls to help the firm secure state business and voted present Wednesday on a bill that would provide tax credits for Continental Tire, which he said the firm represents. The bill passed.
"I try to be careful and make sure the firm isn't doing anything that could get me in trouble," said Raoul, who added that he is learning about municipal financing so he can help towns and cities with bond deals.
Raoul's signature achievement was pushing through a death penalty ban that few expected to pass.
"I was very surprised when he told me he had enough votes," said Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. "And that's because it was a very individual, personal type of vote. Those type of bills come along once in a career."
For now, Raoul said he plans to run for his Senate seat next year.
"There's a lot of room out there to serve. I don't want to be one of those people that is trying to hold on to power beyond my time," said Raoul, who added he's not worried if he loses. "For me there's enough stress, there's enough time away from my kids and family."