Though many of his early Chicago neighborhood supporters were Jewish, of course not all of them were. Perhaps the most controversial of these was William Ayers, who gained notoriety as part of a radical leftist domestic terror cell in the 1960s, but rehabilitated himself as a University of Illinois professor whose work in education even gained the praise of Chicago mayor Richard Daley. Ayers served on a school reform board with Obama and in 1995 held a coffee reception for him which has now became a major point of Republican attack, most famously when GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin accused him of "palling around with terrorists."
But, according to Obama backer and major Jewish activist Alan Solow, that's just the kind of neighborhood it was. "It's a very interesting place to live," says Solow, who used to live in Hyde Park. "We're a city where people try to overcome their differences to make the city a better place, so that means that people you're on boards with you might not agree with."
A place, as was the case for Solow, where Palestinian advocate and Chicago University professor Rashid Khalidi could be your next-door neighbor and Ayers could be someone you play softball with. Solow, a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, discovered that one day when he was struck by how well a new team member was playing. He didn't know who he was until his wife told him.
Solow, though Democratic in his politics, focused on non-partisan issues when working with state government on behalf of the United Jewish Communities, which was how he first met Obama. He praises Obama for having helped with issues of Jewish concern, like the historically Jewish local Mount Sinai Hospital, which relies on state funding. "He had always been somebody that the Jewish community felt it could count on on issues that were important to us."
Not everyone speaks so glowingly of his time on the state senate. "Barack would make commitments as a state legislator that he would vote for certain things and then wouldn't," says one Chicago Jewish leader, who wouldn't detail the specific votes involved because it would be "stupid" to speak badly of someone who might be the next president of the United States.
But he won over Solow and gained an important backer. Solow went on to be a key fund-raiser, like so many of his politically active Jewish neighbors.