The Democratic Party got a new star March 16 when Barack Obama, a progressive 42-year-old state senator from Chicago, won the primary election outright for the US Senate with a surprising 52.7% in a seven-candidate race, upsetting state Comptroller Daniel Hynes, who only got 23.7% despite Machine support, and investment banker Blair Hill, who spent at least $29 million of his personal fortune on the race only to see his chances evaporate with reports of his very messy divorce. If elected &emdash; and Illinois has been trending Democratic in recent years &emdash; Obama would become just the third African American US senator since Reconstruction. (Fellow Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley Braun narrowly lost her seat to Republican Peter Fitzferald in 1998 but Fitzgerald is not seeking re-election.) Obama, whose father was a Kenyan and mother was a white Kansan, spent five years as a community organizer in Chicago before entering Harvard Law School, where he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He returned to Chicago to register 100,000 voters in the 1992 elections, practiced civil rights law and became a senior lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

Obama was elected to the state Senate seven years ago from Chicago's South Side. He developed a reputation as a progressive who was able to get support from both sides of the aisle to create a state earned-income tax credit for Illinois' working poor families. As chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, he passed laws extending health coverage to children and families without insurance, co-sponsored legislation establishing a prescription drug discount for seniors, passed a Hospital Report Card that makes hospitals more accountable to consumers, championed increased funding for AIDS prevention and other public health initiatives, and sponsored legislation to move the state towards universal health care. After revelations about innocent men wrongly convicted of capital crimes, he also obtained unanimous passage to a bill mandating the videotaping of police interrogations of suspects in capital crimes. He also was a vocal critic of the PATRIOT Act and the war in Iraq and has attracted the support of white liberals and centrists in Chicago and its suburbs.

John Nichols, writing for TheNation.com, noted that much of Obama's campaign mirrored the most impressive aspects of Howard Dean's presidential candidacy, such as his use of the Internet and Meet Ups to draw supporters. While most of organized labor endorsed another, "safer" candidate, Obama got support from the Service Employees International Union, one of Dean's early supporters, and US Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky, both Dean backers. And unlike Dean, who peaked in late 2003, Obama kept his powder dry until the runup to the primary.

"I think it's fair to say that the conventional wisdom was we could not win," Obama told supporters on election night. "We didn't have enough money. We didn't have enough organization. There was no way that a skinny guy from the South Side with a funny name like Barack Obama could ever win a statewide race. Sixteen months later we are here, and Democrats from all across Illinois &emdash; suburbs, city, downstate, upstate, black, white, Hispanic, Asian &emdash; have declared: Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!"

He told the New York Times that his race was less important than the issues he talked about: health care, education and the economy. "This election probably signals the maturing of not just black voters but Illinois voters across the board," Obama said. People showed, he said, that they "are more interested in the message than the color of the messenger."

AL QAEDA WANTS 4 MORE YEARS OF BUSH. A group claiming links with al Qaeda and responsibility for the Madrid train bombings said it would prefer for George Bush to win another term in November, as it was not possible to find a leader "more foolish than [Bush], who deals with matters by force rather than with wisdom."

In a statement addressed to Bush and sent to the Arabic language daily al-Hayat, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, which claimed responsibility for the Madrid bombings, also damned the Democratic nominee with faint praise: "Kerry will kill our nation while it sleeps because he and the Democrats have the cunning to embellish blasphemy and present it to the Arab and Muslim nation as civilization. Because of this we desire you (Bush) to be elected," Reuters reported March 17.

The group is named after Muhammed Atef, also known as Abu Hafs, a close bin Laden aide killed in the US-led war in Afghanistan.

DELAY DENIED. The March 9 Texas primaries didn't go quite as Tom DeLay planned. The Exterminator, steamed that the state's congressional delegation was split 17-15, rammed a re-redistricting plan through the Texas Legislature that was designed to take six or seven seats away from Democrats, including liberal Lloyd Doggett, whose district was split three ways and sent to Houston, the Rio Grande and San Antonio. A similar gerrymandering in Dallas was designed to end the career of Rep. Martin Frost. Rep. Ralph Hall, whose only demonstrable Democratic tie usually was in the vote for House speaker on opening day anyway, went ahead and switched parties, evening the delegation at 16-16. But when the dust cleared March 10 Doggett had beaten a Mexican-American candidate from the south end of the overwhelmingly Hispanic district, setting up a general election matchup with an Hispanic Republican who will likely be well-funded but a long-shot in a district that is two-thirds Democratic. The early line favors Dems in 10 seats and GOPers in 16 seats, with five up for grabs, including Frost's setup against Rep. Pete Sessions in District 32, which should be one of the hottest races in the nation this fall. Other tossups include Rep. Max Sandlin (D) in Northeast Texas District 1 (65% GOP); Rep. Nick Lampson (D) in Southeast Texas District 2 (60% GOP); Rep. Chet Edwards (D) in North Central Texas District 17; and a pairing of incumbents, Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D) vs. Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) in West Texas District 19.

Meanwhile, the Travis County district attorney in Austin was investigating DeLay's role in the 2002 legislative elections that resulted in the selection of the first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction. Corporations, which are barred from contributing directly to legislative candidates, were accused of laundering contributions through Washington PACs. The grand jury is investigating whether state law was violated when a Republican group gave $190,000 to seven candidates for the Texas House in 2002. The donations were made on the same day, two weeks after DeLay's PAC, Texans for a Republican Majority, sent $190,000 in corporate money to the GOP group.

COLORADO ELECTION SHUFFLE. In a matter of a few weeks the Senate seat in Colorado went from safe Republican to a likely Democratic pickup after incumbent Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) abruptly decided to retire and Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) jumped into the race. US Rep. Mark Udall (D) had joined the race before Salazar but bowed out in favor of the popular AG, who had been preparing for a run for governor in 2006. Former Rep. Bob Schaffer, a favorite of "movement conservatives," apparently will be the consensus GOP nominee after Reps. Bob Beauprez, Scott McInnis and Tom Tancredo opted out. Salazar, who might still face a primary challenge from political newcomers, has been AG since 1998 and won re-election by 20 points in 2002. National Republicans urged Beauprez to stay put in his suburban Denver 7th District seat, which would be a tossup if vacated. McInnis already has announced he is retiring from the House and his western slope District 3 also is seen as a tossup.

NEVADA GETS PAPER E-VOTE BACKUP. Nevada voters will be among the first in the nation to cast their ballots on a touch-screen voting machine, then double check hem on a piece of paper before making their choices official. Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller sees the printers, which are required to be outfitted for all the state's e-vote machines by November, as a way to bolster voter confidence and turnout, the Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Feb. 2. Though many election supervisors are resisting the use of printers to back up computerized voting, Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at John Hopkins University and critic of voting machine security, said he thinks printers for touch-screen machines are a necessity, as computers can fail, software can have problems and the printers can provide a backup. See www.verifiedvoting.com.

PUSH FOR VERIFIED E-VOTE. Time is getting short to press for passage of bills requiring paper audit trails for electronic voting machines across the country. Verifiedvoting.org noted that there were three e-voting bills in the Senate, sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, Hillary Clinton and Bob Graham, but only Graham's S 1980 requires verifiable elections by November 2004. The three sponsors reportedly are coming together on a new bill, but in the meantime, it is important to keep pushing Rep. Rush Holt's HR 2239 in the House and S 1980 in the Senate. Call the Capitol switchboard at 1-800-839-5276 or 202-224-3121 and ask for your lawmaker's office. You can find your senators' and representative's names, phone numbers and current position (if any) on the bill at www.verifiedvoting.org.

NAFTA EXPANSION STUMBLES. The Bush administration and its corporate backers suffered yet another fallback in their plan to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) throughout the rest of the hemisphere. The next scheduled negotiations for the "Free Trade Area of the Americas" (FTAA) were pushed back at least another month due to "significant differences" between the Bush administration and a group of nations led by Brazil that opposes FTAA in its current form. Objections include US agriculture policies that lavish huge subsidies on large agribusinesses with which small farmers cannot compete. Talks broke down in Miami in November, resulting in only a bare-bones "FTAA-Lite," and reached an impasse in Puebla, Mexico last month.

In the meantime, the Bush administration concluded negotiations to add the Dominican Republic to Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), already negotiated with five Central American countries. The agreement will remove virtually all barriers to trade between the two countries, while failing to provide adequate protections for workers and the environment, according to Global Trade Watch (see citizenstrade.org). While quotas and tariffs protecting American sugar will not be dropped all at once, the Dominican Republic, already one of the largest sugar exporters, will be able to incrementally increase its sugar exports to the US (by 10,000 tons the first year after the agreement is implemented, and by 2% a year thereafter). The Dominican Republic will be the eighth country that the US has entered into a free trade pact with since December. Human Rights Watch is opposing the CAFTA agreement on grounds of weak labor rights protections and calls on Congress to reject the agreement unless it is renegotiated to include effective labor rights provisions. See hrw.org.

For more on NAFTA, CAFTA, FTAA and other "free trade" issues, see the Activist Resource Center at citizenstrade.org or call 202-778-3311.

ANTI-WAR RALLY CELEBRATES FREEDOM. A thousand Iowans gathered on the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday, March 20, not only to protest the ongoing occupation in Iraq but also to celebrate a victory over an intrusive attempt by federal authorities to shut down dissent over the war. First Amendment rights to speech and assembly were threatened in February when the US attorney in Des Moines convened a grand jury and issued subpoenas for Drake University administrators and four peace activists who participated in a peace conference on the campus on Nov. 15, 2003 &emdash; and placed a gag order on the subjects of the investigation. Frank Cordaro, writing in Via Pacis, the Voice of the Des Moines Catholic Worker Community, noted that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, wrote a personal letter to Ashcroft raising his concerns about the grand jury action. The Des Moines Register also challenged the legitimacy of using the grand jury to stifle dissent against the war. The groundswell of concern and pressure caused the US attorney to drop the case one week after serving the subpoenas. Harkin's office called Elton Davis of the Catholic Worker to let him know the subpoenas were quashed. "We don't get a lot of calls from US senators around here, let alone calls to inform of the squashing of subpoenas to a grand jury," Cordaro wrote. "Free speech and civil liberties won the day."

Bruce Nestor, president of the National Lawyers Guild, said "Voices of outrage across the political spectrum spoke out against this action. No one spoke up in defense of the US Attorney ... We know the use of the federal grand jury was abused here in Des Moines. If you see the legal groundwork being laid, there is cause to be alarmed. Acts of protest and demonstration can be viewed as acts of domestic terrorism."

Former California state Sen. Tom Hayden credited Iowa peace activists in the caucuses with focusing attention on peace and justice issues in the presidential campaign. He encouraged continued neighborhood grassroots organizing efforts at building progressive politics locally.

RUMSFELD CAUGHT LYING. The most vivid display of the Bush administration's widening credibility gap came March 14 when CBS' Bob Schieffer asked Defense Secretary Rumsfeld "If Iraq did not have WMD, why did they pose an immediate threat to this country?" Rumsfeld retorted, "You and a few other critics are the only people I've heard use the phrase 'immediate threat.' I didn't ... It's become kind of folklore that that's what happened." When Schieffer repeated his question, Rumsfeld challenged the reporter saying, "If you have any citations, I'd like to see 'em." Then New York Times columnist Tom Friedman read Rumsfeld his own words, pointing out that the Defense Secretary had told Congress on 9/19/02 that "No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people" than Iraq and that "some have argued that the nuclear threat from Iraq is not imminent [but] I would not be so certain." According to the transcript of the show, Rumsfeld replied "Mm-hmm. It &emdash; my view of &emdash; of the situation was that he &emdash; he had &emdash; we &emdash; we believe, the best intelligence that we had and other countries had and that &emdash; that we believed and we still do not know &emdash; we will know." See a video clip of the exchange at The Progress Report for 3/15/04 at www.americanprogress.org.

FBI MUM ABOUT DOMESTIC TERROR PLOT. Two Texans and a New Jersey man have pleaded guilty in an apparent domestic terrorism plot after the FBI found an arsenel of guns, bullets and bombs, including a chemical cyanide bomb that could have killed thousands, being stored in rural East Texas. William Krar, a reputed white supremacist, faces a possible life sentence for possession of a chemical weapon and his common-law wife, Judith Bruey, faces a maximum five years in prison for conspiracy to possess illegal weapons after investigators in April 2003 found nearly 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 65 pipe bombs and briefcases that could be detonated by remote control, plus 800 grams of almost pure sodium cyanide in an aluminum canister, next to hydrochloric, nitric and acetic acids and formulas for making bombs. Edward Feltus of New Jersey, who was supposed to receive forged documents from Krar, faces 15 years for aiding and abetting the transportation of false identity documents. Also discovered were anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-government books and pamphlets, according to an FBI affidavit, and the FBI fears that Krar may have built other chemical bombs that may be in circulation.

But Jim Kessler, president of the Washington-based consulting firm Definition Strategies, noted March 14 in a UPI commentary that the Department of Justice has yet to issue a news release on the case, which has received little attention in the US news media. The London Observer March 21 reported that more than 30 plots by US terrorists have been uncovered since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. They include attacks on oil refineries, politicians and military bases. In February, a letter laced with ricin, a lethal nerve toxin, was sent to the Senate. One had been sent to the White House last November. Both are similar to one found in South Carolina earlier still, signed by someone called Fallen Angel. And the anthrax attacks of two years ago have still not been solved; the perpetrator is thought to be an American, possibly one with military and/or intelligence ties. The FBI only found out about Krar by accident, when he mailed a package of five fake ID cards, including one for the Pentagon and the UN, to Feltus, apparently a member of the New Jersey Militia, in January 2002. But the cards were misdelivered to a man in New York who called the police, which led investigators to monitor Krar and Bruey's mail in the town of Tyler, where they lived, about 10 miles from the hamlet of Noonday, where the weapons were found. The investigation reportedly is continuing.

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