If you’ve read enough profiles of Barack Obama, chances are you’re familiar with the name Kirk Dillard. An accomplished and articulate legislator who served with Obama in the Illinois state Senate, he is frequently called on by the national media to shed light on the presumptive Democratic nominee’s early days in politics.
Dillard is an unabashed admirer, one whose high praise for Obama led the campaign to feature him in Obama’s first biographical television ad.
All of that wouldn’t be so unusual except for the fact that Dillard is a Republican. And a delegate for John McCain.
Now, as a result of his willingness to regularly offer an unvarnished take on Obama’s Springfield years, Dillard is facing some serious blowback within his own party.
Much of the resentment stems from Dillard’s starring role in the Obama commercial, which aired long into the primary season and burnished Obama’s bipartisan credentials in six states, including Iowa.
“Senator Obama worked on some of the deepest issues we had and he was successful in a bipartisan way,” said Dillard in the ad. “Republican legislators respected Senator Obama. His negotiation skills and an ability to understand both sides would serve the country very well.”
Dillard was not a McCain delegate at the time the spot was filmed, but his appearance nevertheless rubbed GOP colleagues the wrong way.
“There was some obvious concern about Senator Dillard and the fact that he was in an ad, and the comments he’s made,” said Frank Watson, the Senate Republican leader. “I just had to say I was disappointed that he was in a commercial for the candidate. That was over the top. He didn’t just hear from me. Colleagues, Republicans in general throughout the state were very disappointed in his participation.”
Andy McKenna, the state party chairman, also raised the issue with Dillard. “I echoed what I’d heard from many people that they were disappointed and found it counter-productive,” he said.
But it wasn’t just the commercial that landed Dillard in hot water. It was the stream of laudatory remarks in the media, including some made in a 2007 Obama conference call that he participated in.
As soon as it seemed likely that Obama would be the Democratic nominee, other Republican state Senate colleagues privately complained to him that anything positive he said about Obama would hurt McCain.
Besides, as they recalled things, Obama had much more modest achievements and a far less dramatic presence.
“Kirk’s enthusiasm for Senator Obama is clearly an outlier,” said GOP state Sen. Christine Radogno. “Everyone agrees Barack’s an intelligent guy, but in terms of being a stupendous standout that’s a unique view.”
“In fairness, [Dillard] served with Obama longer than I did,” said Dale Righter, the Republican Senate caucus chair. “But I’ve seen him refer to Obama as having done really yeoman’s work in the Illinois state Senate. I don’t know that I’d agree with that from my two years with him.”
Dillard contends he was punished for by Watson for his pro-Obama remarks. Dillard, who serves in the unpaid position of party whip, said that he had been assured by Watson that he would get the next opening among the paid leadership positions, namely assistant leader. But, when an opening came, he was passed over. Dillard believes it was at least in part payback.
“The partisans want to punish me,” he said. “They’ve done it through pocketbook and position.”
Watson was unavailable to return a follow-up request for comment on that claim. But his spokesperson, Patty Schuh, denied that any specific position had been promised. She did not rule out the possibility that Dillard’s comments on Obama might have contributed to him not getting the jb, but said it could not have been the sole reason.
Dillard also appeared, to some colleagues, to be dragging his feet on a matter of importance to his colleagues—a request from McCain’s Illinois campaign chairman, state Rep. Jim Durkin, that Dillard formally ask the Obama campaign to remove the ad from the air.
Durkin says that Dillard delayed for months until finally, in May, Durkin himself offered to draft a formal letter for Dillard to sign and send to the Obama campaign.
“He walked the letter over to my desk on the Senate floor and stuck it under my nose and asked me if I’d sign it,” recalled Dillard.
Durkin says that Dillard was not taken by surprise and that Dillard revised the letter himself. “I had talked to Kirk and I had suggested to him that I would draft the letter,” said Durkin. “I did not just show up on the Senate floor. He was pleased and relieved. I came over with a draft and he marked it up.”
Durkin added that Dillard had said he was glad to bring the matter to a close. “Kirk has received a lot of flak in Illinois. I was doing this to protect Kirk and he was thankful that I did this.” Durkin said the letter was his idea, and that it did not originate from within the McCain campaign.
When presented with the request in June, the Obama campaign agreed to stop airing the ad.
“Senator Obama appreciates that Senator Dillard worked with him in a bipartisan way in the Illinois legislature to take on the special interests and pass campaign finance and ethics reform,” said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan. “But he understands that Senator Dillard feels obligated to support his party’s nominee.”
Dillard attributes some of the GOP pushback to reflexive partisanship.
“Some of the totally partisan, more conservative legislators from Day One were not understanding of my cameo appearance in a Senator Obama ad in Iowa,” he said. “The only people I received negative feedback from initially were the partisan leaders.”
Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield, and an expert on state politics, said that Dillard may have been surprised by the controversy his comments caused because state politics in Illinois are generally isolated from national partisan rancor.
“Politics tends to be not very nationally or ideologically focused on the state level in Illinois,” said Redfield.
But Dillard’s comments also may have touched a raw nerve by exacerbating preexisting intra-party tensions.
“The Republican Party in Illinois has a huge ideological split between the moderate wing and the hard right,” said Redfield. “Dillard is seen as part of the moderate suburban crowd so there’s a ‘there he goes again’ kind of reaction from the people who brought you Alan Keyes [the conservative activist who Republicans nominated to run against Obama in 2004].”
Dillard said he will continue to speak up about Obama, though he favors McCain for president because he agrees with the presumptive GOP nominee on the issues. He contends that there are other Republicans who hold Obama in high regard, though they will not say so publicly for partisan purposes.
“None of my colleagues who admired Obama will return the reporters’ phone calls,” said Dillard. “And that’s the problem with this country. No one is willing to say something nice for 10 seconds about someone of a different race, party, and location. In this case Barack is from Chicago and I’m from the suburbs of Chicago.”
“Very few suburbanites would work closely with city of Chicago Democrats,” he added. “Also, there’s the racial component. It’s a testament to Senator Obama that he was able to work with people who were different than he.”
But, he hastened to add, “JohnMcCain has those same qualities.”