Obama, Keyes Face Off in Race

Two Harvard men will make history today in the election for an Illinois Senate seat that has pitted Harvard Law School graduate Barack Obama against Alan L. Keyes ’72.  

The race marks the first time two African Americans have been the major party candidates for a Senate seat. The winner will become the only black member of the current Senate, and the fifth black senator in U.S. history.

This milestone and a stint in Harvard’s hallowed halls are just about all the two men share.

Obama, a liberal Illinois state senator who was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, is the year’s political darling after a much-heralded keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Keyes, a former ambassador and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is a known quantity in conservative politics for his impassioned rhetoric on family values.

Obama, who has 40-point lead in most polls, did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but in an interview with The Crimson, Keyes was happy to sum up the differences between himself and his opponent: “Obama is an academic socialist, and I’m a conservative who believes in self-government.”  

Neither candidate has played up his Harvard background. Obama’s convention speech followed an American dream narrative: the son of a Kansan mother and a Kenyan father with a Harvard Ph.D, he referred to himself simply as “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too,” and didn’t mention his Ivy League background.

As for Keyes, he joked that “over the course of the years, my Harvard background has been something for which my fellow conservatives forgive me. They’ve agreed not to hold it against me.”

In August, Keyes replaced Republican candidate Jack Ryan, who had been driven out of the race by a scandal over his divorce papers. Ryan graduated from Harvard’s joint J.D.-MBA program.

Keyes has repeatedly stressed his own socially conservative platform. “The Democrats are committed to everything that destroys the moral foundation of America,” he told The Crimson. “I stand for the defense of the moral tradition. I stand for the traditional family.”

Aaron J. Mowery ’08 said he has already voted for Keyes by absentee ballot.

“Barack Obama is very articulate and he has a great personal story to tell, but a lot of the problem with this Senate race is that the media has gotten caught up with the hype,” said Mowery, who called Obama “very far left” on the issues.

But on a campus where recent election polls have confirmed a liberal bent, Mowery may be alone. Asked if he knew fellow Keyes voters at Harvard, Mowery laughed, “I think I might be the only person of all of Harvard who voted for him. Whenever I tell anyone I voted for Alan Keyes, they go, ‘What!?’”

Other Harvard Illinoisans not only support Obama, but have clamored to be a part of the latest Democratic sensation.

“Illinois knows that he’s going to be a superstar, and we want to say we knew him when,” said Abraham J. R. Riesman ’08, who organized a benefit concert over the summer to shore up Obama’s youth support.

“I originally wanted to call the concert ‘Barack Me Baby’ but [the campaign] thought it was too dirty, so we called it ‘Barack and Roll’ instead,” he said.

This summer, Carrie E. Andersen ’08, who is also from Illinois, saw Riesman’s mention of Obama on his thefacebook.com profile and sent him an enthusiastic message. She eventually helped him coordinate the concert. Riesman said the concert drew 300 people and was responsible for 150 youth voter registrations.  

Thefacebook.com also helped Riesman connect with Maya E. Frommer ’07, already fifteen-minutes famous for the “John Edwards is Hot” T-shirts she created.

Frommer was amenable to an Obama t-shirt but was having trouble coming up with a catchy pun. “She thought maybe she could rhyme Obama with baby’s mama,” Riesman recalled. He offered an alternative: “Barack and Roll,” the name of his concert, as well as “Barack My World.”

After exchanging e-mails with campaign staff, Frommer said she sent a bunch of shirts to headquarters. Unlike with the Edwards t-shirts, she didn’t hear anything back.

“They must be too busy down there winning,” she said.  

Down in the polls overall, Keyes only has the support of 43 percent of Republicans, according to a recent Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll.

Keyes said the polls were “obviously generated by a biased media that has put out a lot of lies.” He added that the “publication of polls should be banned, because they’re manipulated to demoralize people who disagree with the media.”

—Staff writer Irin Carmon can be reached at carmon@fas.harvard.edu.