FLASHBACK: Obama Launched His Political Career Through Gerrymandering

Former president now 'tired of politicians manipulating maps' for political gain

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July 2, 2019

Former president Barack Obama took to Twitter on Monday to decry "politicians manipulating maps" for political gain, but a look back to his early days in Illinois shows he used his redistricting power as a state senator to launch his political career.

Obama’s Monday post called on his followers to sign on to a petition from All on the Line, a redistricting campaign ran by his former attorney general Eric Holder that aims to put an end to "rigged electoral maps drawn with surgical precision by politicians."

Long before All on the Line was formed this year, it was Obama taking advantage of the redistricting power he had as a member of the Democratic majority in the Illinois state senate.

In a move once described by the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza as "the most important event in Obama’s early political life," the then-Illinois lawmaker had his district redrawn to include a neighborhood that would prove critical to his political rise. In the process of drawing new district lines to help Democrats in upcoming elections, Obama redrew his own South Side Chicago district to extend north to include the city's affluent Gold Coast neighborhood, and he gained new wealthy and influential constituents.

Lizza explained the redistricting gave Obama access to the "money and power" he needed to complete his rise from community organizer to U.S. senator.

"African-Americans still were a majority, and the map contained some of the poorest sections of Chicago, but Obama's new district was wealthier, whiter, more Jewish, less blue-collar, and better educated," Lizza wrote. "It immediately gave him the two things he needed to run for the Senate in 2004: money and power."

PBS revisited the redistricting decision in 2012 to explore just how surgical the change to Obama's district was—it "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," PBS wrote.

The new All on the Line push against redistricting is a campaign from the Holder-led National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which merged earlier this year with Obama’s political organization, Organizing for America.

The group currently lists Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Minnesota as electoral targets this cycle. The NDRC previously invested a total of $1.2 million into Virginia in support of then-Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, who went on to win the election by 9 points and has remained in office despite admitting to his presence in a racist medical school yearbook photo with one man dressed in blackface and another dressed in KKK garb.

NDRC redistricting efforts were recently thwarted by a Supreme Court decision that barred federal courts from ruling on gerrymandering cases. The NDRC sent fundraising emails in the wake of the result.