Two Kentuckians reflect on their time with Barack Obama

During the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois, candidate Barack Obama, in a quiet, reflective moment, pondered his emerging place in history.

But his campaign manager, Jim Cauley of Pikeville, was thinking of something else, trying to keep Obama focused on the battle at hand.

"We were together in the old State Capitol in Springfield, in the office of Abraham Lincoln, where Lincoln had been a lawmaker for the state of Illinois," said Cauley, "and Barack, an introspective guy, looked around for a few minutes without saying anything and then asked me, 'Jimmy, do you ever wonder what Lincoln would think about a black man being in this position?'

"I told him, man, I don't think about that stuff. I'm just trying to get you elected."

In 1990, Barack Obama became the first African-American to be elected president of the Harvard Law Review, maybe the most prestigious law journal in the country.

Jim Chen, today the dean of the University of Louisville law school, was the guy in the Harvard class whom Obama beat to become president of the Review.

"When Obama won, I recall that Ken Mack hugged him for the victory. Mack was a black law professor," Chen said.

"It made me realize that history was being made. I knew Obama was destined for greatness."

On Tuesday, Cauley and Chen, along with the world, will watch Barack Obama be sworn into office as the first black president of the United States of America.

Cauley will be in the audience in Washington. Chen has postponed a faculty meeting at U of L, a move requested by his faculty, to watch the historic event on TV.

They say their minds will be flooded by memories of the Obama they knew when he wasn't a household name. They'll also be thinking about his potential to change the country.

"He has become the most important person, not only in this nation, but in the world," Chen said.

He's got the juice

Cauley first met Obama on a pretty Sunday afternoon in Chicago in June 2003.

After Cauley watched Obama at a news conference, they talked for an hour in a coffee shop at Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard.

Obama wanted Cauley to manage his fledgling campaign for the U.S. Senate. Cauley was hesitant, but the men forged an immediate alliance.

Cauley, a political consultant since the early 1990s, was born into a Democratic political family in Pike County in 1966. His dad, James Cauley, was the county's property valuation administrator. His mother, Deloris Deskins Cauley, was a worker for various campaigns.

In 1990, Cauley, with assistance from government consultant Andrew "Skipper" Martin, got a job with Democrat Harvey Sloane's unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate.

After earning a bachelor's degree in political science in 1992 from the University of Louisville, Cauley went to work in other campaigns, including a successful Baltimore mayoral campaign in 1999.

A string of victories for Cauley over the years prompted political consultant David Axelrod to call Cauley in 2003 to ask him to take over Obama's campaign to become the third black U.S. senator since Reconstruction.

"My concerns were whether Obama had the money for a campaign and his name," Cauley said. "I didn't think he could win. But I had never been to Chicago, so I thought I was going to at least get a free trip out of it."

At the coffee shop, Obama asked Cauley to be his campaign manager.

"I accepted. Didn't plan to, but, oh, he's got it. So impressive, extremely intelligent," Cauley said. "I call it the 'juice.' I can't tell you what it is. I can't quantify it. But when you meet those people in life, you say, that is an impressive human being. He's got the juice."

Throughout the campaign, Cauley and Obama spent a lot of time together.

"He was great to work for. He doesn't yell, but he might chide you about something," Cauley said. "You didn't know at the time he was going after you, but later you thought he certainly was on your case and had a point to make. He's smart with his cuts."

On the Sunday night before the 2004 election, Cauley knew from the polls that Obama was going to win.

"I told him I was so happy for him. I guess, the way things have turned out, it made me a footnote in history," he said.

Never, Cauley said, did he think about the irony of a white man from Kentucky helping a black man from Chicago win a Senate seat until a Herald-Leader columnist asked him about that.

"We both had a job to do, and we liked each other," Cauley said. "It was just stunning to be around him."

Cauley said he wasn't interested in working for Obama's presidential campaign. Anyway, he already had committed to manage the 2007 Kentucky gubernatorial race of Democrat Steve Beshear.

Still, Obama and Cauley have stayed in touch.

"He called me last spring when he was trying to get superdelegate votes from Kentucky to secure the presidential nomination, and I've seen him at some fund-raisers," Cauley said.

He plans to attend several parties and balls in Washington this week but has no specific plan to meet with Obama.

During the inauguration, he said, he expects to reflect some as Obama did in the old Illinois state House years ago.

"He's a wonderful human being," Cauley said. "In politics, he would check my aggressiveness. He would say politics is more than winning, that its purpose is to help people."

Betting on Barack

When the Illinois Senate race was in full swing in 2004, Chen, then a law professor from Taiwan at the University of Minnesota, bet two other law professors — Guy-Uriel Charles, a Haitian at Duke University and Luis Fuentes-Rohwer, a Puerto Rican at Indiana — on whether a non-white would ever be elected president.

"The two other fellows said no. I said it's going to happen and I think his name is Barack Obama," said Chen. "Mr. Charles still owes me a steak."

Chen, who became dean of the Brandeis School of Law at U of L in January 2007, first met Obama in his second year of law school at Harvard.

The race for president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990 was "an arduous process, like in Survivor or American Idol on TV," Chen said.

"And Obama proved to be a worthy choice. He always left the impression that he heard you out," Chen said. "He would give you a fair hearing, and when the decision was made, it was his. He was very savvy, a good listener. He could defuse conflicts. He was an effective leader."

Chen has not seen Obama since his 1991 graduation.

His wish, Chen said, would be for the Harvard class "to put together a big old greeting card that says, 'Barack, we knew you when, congratulations and we wish you absolute best wishes as president of the United States and leader of the free world.

"I'd put my name on it John Hancock-style with great pride."