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Bureau County state’s attorney Pat Herrmann shakes hands with then state Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago) 10 years ago this week at the DePue VFW Hall. Obama had, days earlier, given a robust speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston and then hit the road downstate to plug his candidacy for U.S. Senate. People who met Obama remember it vividly, but all agreed they didn’t think they were looking at a future president.
OTTAWA — Ten years ago last week, only a few people outside of Chicago had heard of him — much less considered him a future president of the United States.
But 10 years ago this week, the whole nation was buzzing about his electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention. The 42-year-old candidate then chartered a campaign bus making stops in Ottawa, DePue and Granville, where hundreds jostled to shake hands with Barack Obama.
“I won’t lie: We had a good week,” the future president told an Ottawa throng that chanted, “O-Ba-Ma.”
Indeed, he had. It was July 31, 2004, and state Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago) had been all but handed a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, thanks to a sex scandal that forced the Republican nominee to quit the race.
Four days after stealing the show at the Boston convention, Obama stepped off his tour bus dressed in a plaid shirt and holding daughter Sasha, then 3. He had to hand off his daughter to shake the dozens of hands and autograph the dozens of papers thrust before him.
“I’d never seen people react like that,” said Rocky Raikes, then and now chairman of the La Salle County Democratic Central Committee.
“It was just a breath of fresh air,” he said. “Somebody young, willing to stand up for the people and do the right thing. That day was just a special day for everybody. Everybody loved the ‘change’ talk.”
Mary K. O’Brien was in 2004 running for appellate justice, a post she still holds, and was tabbed to provide introductory remarks and pump up the crowd in Ottawa. That, she recalled, was not a difficult task.
“Everybody was enthusiastic,” O’Brien recalled. “People were both curious and excited about seeing this state senator who was running for U.S. Senate. People outside regular Democratic circles hadn’t heard of him until after the convention and people were curious.
“It was an honor to be able to introduce him.”
O’Brien had an advantage over the curious onlookers.
She was a former state representative who’d known Obama professionally — they were sworn into the Illinois General Assembly the same day — and had a few common interests including death penalty reform.
State Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) had a similar perspective. Then-Gov. George Ryan had tabbed him and Obama to work in a joint House-Senate project and worked closely with him.
“I enjoyed the time we got to spend together,” Mautino recalled. “He was a great negotiator and he’s a very, very funny guy.”
Mautino presided at an Obama campaign stop at the VFW Hall in DePue and witnessed a not-less-rapturous reception than Obama had enjoyed in Ottawa. Mautino had seen visiting politicians well-received by local crowds — but never anything like this.
“It was the biggest reception we’d had for anybody coming in,” Mautino said. “It was just wall-to-wall people.”
Eric Bryant, now mayor of DePue, was among those in attendance at the VFW Hall.
“I was very impressed with him,” he said. “I thought he was very eloquent and personable and he seemed to have an agenda. I decided then I was going to vote for him.”
But did anybody there think they were looking at a future president? The short answer, those interviewed agreed, was no.
“We were looking at just making him a (U.S.) senator,” Raikes said. “Stepping into that time, I don’t think anybody could have had that thought.”
Bryant said the possibility never entered his mind, either.
“I wouldn’t have said it was out of the question — he had all the qualities a president needs — but I never would have thought it myself,” Bryant said.
Mautino agreed that while Obama was a rising star, president was at that time beyond his imagination.
“At the time we were working together? No,” Mautino said. “I knew he was talented and I knew he wanted to go to Washington. I just didn’t know he’d go to the top.”