This is FRONTLINE's old website. The content here may be outdated or no longer functioning.

Browse over 300 documentaries
on our current website.

Watch Now

Artifact Nine: Obama’s Big Political Play



big photo

In the lead-up to The Choice 2012, FRONTLINE’s hotly anticipated dual biography of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we’re publishing “The Artifacts of Character,” a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives. This week we’ll be publishing three artifacts for each candidate, on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Check back this afternoon for our next artifact from Romney.

view larger size

artifact nine

< embed >


<div style="width:100%; text-align: center; margin: 10px 0px; padding: 0px; height: 530px;"><iframe src="" width="500" height="530" frameborder="0" scrolling="no"></iframe></div>

In late 2000, Obama was recovering from a devastating loss to Rep. Bobby Rush, who won 61 percent of the vote in the primary to Obama’s 30 percent, and went on to retain his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But in the spring of 2001, Obama had an opportunity that would help to change the course of his political future.

The Illinois Democrats had won the right to redraw the state’s legislative districts. And they would do so, as the Republicans did in 1991, to maximize their political advantage.

“Partisan redistricting in America is the most corrupt process that’s still legal, right?” Ryan Lizza, a reporter for The New Yorker, told FRONTLINE in 2008. “Everyone does it, every party does it, and everyone knows it’s totally wrong and is the sort of cause of a lot of our political problems.”

In 2001, Illinois Democrats did their redistricting in an old 1950s office building known as the “inner sanctum,” Lizza said. “Outside, you’re protected by a fingerprint reader and a keypad. You walk through that door and you’re in a little room, and there’s another door with another fingerprint reader and another keypad, just to emphasize that this is a very secure place.”

The legislators got an opportunity to sit down with a Democratic staffer, John Corrigan, at a bank of computers loaded with demographic and mapping technology, Lizza recalled.

Rush, Lizza would later note, took the opportunity to redraw his district to exclude Obama’s home by just a few blocks, which would have forced him to relocate if he wanted to challenge Rush again.

But Obama by then had loftier aspirations. When he had his turn in the inner sanctum, he redrew his state senate district, number 13, according to the map shown here.

The old district, shown in turquoise on the map and outlined in bold blue, started in Obama’s home of Hyde Park, on Chicago’s South Side, and extended westward into poor black neighborhoods, where people lived in small bungalow homes.

The new district, outlined in bold red, retained Obama’s home in Hyde Park and his black supporters, but moved upwards along the lakefront into the so-called Gold Coast, where the wealthy of Chicago resided in upscale condos overlooking Lake Michigan.

The new district better reflected the coalition Obama wanted to build — one of African-Americans and progressive whites.

But it also presented a key moment in Obama’s early political life, Lizza wrote, for perhaps an even more significant reason: “It immediately gave him the two things he needed to run for the U.S. Senate in 2004: money and power.”

Then-Sen.-elect Barack Obama, D-Ill. speaks to reporters at his campaign headquarters in Chicago a day after his victory on Nov. 3, 2004. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.



Frontline Journalism Fund

Supporting Investigative Reporting

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation, the John and Helen Glessner Family Trust, the Ford Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.

Privacy Policy   Journalistic Guidelines   PBS Privacy Policy   PBS Terms of Use   Corporate Sponsorship
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2016 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.