Home-State Record: Carol Moseley Braun

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(Host) Today in our series on the home-state records of the Democratic presidential candidates we look at Carol Moseley Braun. As Jenny Lawton from Chicago Public Radio reports, Braun has been a symbol of both controversy and hope in Illinois.

(Speaker at 1992 victory rally) “She’s the first black woman in the United States Senate. Give it up for Carol Moseley Braun!” (Music plays, “Celebrate good times, come on!”)

(Lawton) In 1992, supporters at Carol Moseley Braun’s victory celebration cheered her as a symbol of new opportunity in Illinois. A politician with star-power, Braun’s poise and promise won her the admiration of voters throughout the state and across the color line. Her inauguration rang in the so-called “year of the woman in politics.”

(Braun, from victory speech) “It’s a new day in America. Illinois is sending a woman to the United States Senate.”
(Sound of crowd applause.)

(Lawton) But since her term in the U.S. Senate 10 years ago, Braun’s career has suffered several hits and many of her old fans have grown to resent her for it. She’s become a political punching-bag of sorts in Illinois, but several polls do show her as the home state favorite.

Carol Moseley Braun began her career in her hometown of Chicago as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office. In 1978, she was elected to the state House and quickly earned a reputation as an outspoken advocate for education reform. In the late ’80s, she served in the administration of the late Mayor Harold Washington.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington says Braun was part of a group of reformers who took on Chicago’s entrenched Democratic machine.

(Washington) “She was a change maker; she was in a position to say, ‘I’ve rejected the old party ways, I’ve rejected the old white guys’ ways.’ And that was the message that launched her into the Senate.”

(Lawton) Early in her term, the northern liberal drew national attention by taking on two icons of southern conservatism: Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and the confederate flag. Her impassioned speech on the Senate floor effectively retired a patent for the emblem of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which features the flag.

But many say even before she took office as a senator, the political honeymoon was over. Braun had to repay $15,000 to the state, when an inquiry revealed she had profited from her family’s timber rights, while her mother received Medicaid. Then came allegations that hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds were misspent. Ultimately, a Federal Election Commission investigation found only a few hundred dollars of what they called sloppy bookkeeping.

But perhaps Braun’s most controversial move came in 1996, when she made an unsanctioned trip to Nigeria and met with the late dictator Sani Abacha, who was being investigated for human rights violations.

Braun took responsibility for her missteps but the damage was done.

(Braun) “They have done everything they can to make political mileage out of the situation. The fact is, it’s closed. My mother, my family have suffered enough with it. We have resolved the issue and I don’t know what else to say about it.”

(Lawton) Still, many mourned her career as a wasted opportunity. Political scientist Paul Green says by the time Braun started campaigning for re-election in ’98, she’d already lost the race.

(Green) “That snap, that zip, that smile, that energy, that winsomeness that she had in ’92 which made her such an attractive candidate, all those things that she had in ’92 seemed to dissipate.”

(Lawton) But Laura Washington suggests Braun also had to contend with a double standard, as an African-American woman.

(Washington) “Even with the controversy, she’s got an incredible record in terms of the positions she’s held and the influence she’s had and in the kind of people she has in her network. But people aren’t willing to give her credit for that in the way that they might give a white man.”

(Lawton) After her defeat in ’98, President Clinton nominated her as ambassador to New Zealand where she served for two years. She swore off politics several times, but Braun says the ills of the current administration have called her back. Now, she’s rallying against the war in Iraq and promoting a single-payer plan for universal health care.

But her campaign hasn’t caught on. She had only about $30,000 on hand in September. So some suspect Braun may be running to give herself the visibility needed to earn a cabinet appointment, or win a nomination for the vice presidency.

For the Home State Record Project, I’m Jenny Lawton.

(Host) The Home-State Record Project on the nine Democratic presidential candidates is a production of Vermont Public Radio. On Friday in our series, Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt.

Read or listen to the Home-State Records of all nine candidates.

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