I have been looking into the background of links between Barack Obama and Bill Ayers, in particular, their having served together on the board of the Woods Fund for several years.
For those who don't want to read my entire post, I'll start with my conclusion: It seems to me that Obama's serving on the board of the Woods Fund for a few years with a former member of the Weather Underground is not fundamentally different from my serving for more than a decade on a law faculty with one.
For those who are interested in Barack Obama's contacts with Bill Ayers, the best thing that I've seen was published by Ben Smith at Politico in February:
"I can remember being one of a small group of people who came to Bill Ayers' house to learn that Alice Palmer was stepping down from the senate and running for Congress," said Dr. Quentin Young, a prominent Chicago physician and advocate for single-payer health care, of the informal gathering at the home of Ayers and his wife, Dohrn. "[Palmer] identified [Obama] as her successor."
Obama and Palmer "were both there," he said.
Obama's connections to Ayers and Dorhn have been noted in some fleeting news coverage in the past. But the visit by Obama to their home — part of a campaign courtship — reflects more extensive interaction than has been previously reported.
Neither Ayers nor the Obama campaign would describe the relationship between the two men. Dr. Young described Obama and Ayers as "friends," but there's no evidence their relationship is more than the casual friendship of two men who occupy overlapping Chicago political circles and who served together on the board of a Chicago foundation. . . .
"I feel very uncomfortable with their past, but neither of them is thought of as horrible types now — so far as most of us know, they are legitimate members of the community," said Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor who has known Obama since the early 1990s and supports his campaign.
"Not only is Obama the opposite pole from radicals like Ayers and Dohrn at least as one point were, he's not a conventional left liberal by any means," he said. . . .
Obama's campaign dismisses the notion that his relationship with Ayers should be seen through the lens of the latter's violent past, or his present lack of regret for the bombings.
"Sen. Obama strongly condemns the violent actions of the Weathermen group, as he does all acts of violence," said Obama's press secretary, Bill Burton. "But he was an 8-year-old child when Ayers and the Weathermen were active, and any attempt to connect Obama with events of almost 40 years ago is ridiculous." . . .
As Bloomberg News reported recently, Obama and Ayers have crossed paths repeatedly in the last decade. In 1997, Obama cited Ayers' critique of the juvenile justice system in a Chicago Tribune article on what prominent Chicagoans were reading. He and Ayers served together on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago for three years starting in 1999. In 2001, Ayers also gave $200 to Obama's state Senate reelection campaign.
Many details of the 1995 meeting are shrouded by time and by Obama's and Ayers' refusals to discuss it.
The exact date is not known, but it was in the second half of 1995, before Palmer's decision — late in her losing congressional primary against Jesse Jackson Jr. — to jump back into the special election for her state Senate seat. (Her decision produced a rift between her and Obama, who was able to get her thrown off the ballot on technical grounds.)
"That's too long ago — that's ancient history," Palmer said, when asked of the meeting.
Dr. Young and another guest, Maria Warren, described it similarly: as an introduction to Hyde Park liberals of the handpicked successor to Palmer, a well-regarded figure on the left.
"When I first met Barack Obama, he was giving a standard, innocuous little talk in the living room of those two legends-in-their-own-minds, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn," Warren wrote on her blog in 2005. "They were launching him — introducing him to the Hyde Park community as the best thing since sliced bread."
Contacted by e-mail, Warren declined to describe the meeting further and later blogged of her concern that Republicans would use accounts of the event for "left-baiting."
Young described the gathering as a matter of "due diligence" for Palmer to introduce her chosen successor to constituents. "Many of us knew him already," he said.
They, like others in his old Chicago world, now consider him a bit too "conservative" for their liking, as Warren wrote recently.
I recall meeting Bill Ayers only once, in the lobby of the building where I live. Bernadine Dohrn introduced us. I know Bernadine slightly because she directs the children and family services clinic at Northwestern Law School. (At the request of one of my former Chicago professors, I once intervened on her behalf with a colleague at Northwestern, so I can be accused of having tried to do her a favor, a favor that she didn't request.)
When I heard a colleague mildly criticize Barack Obama for serving on the board of the Woods Fund with Bill Ayers, I countered that it would depend very much on what sort of organization the Woods Fund is and what it funds.
I have been digging into the background of the Woods Fund and have discovered that the Woods' family business, the Sahara Coal Co. (later Sahara Enterprises), was one of my clients back in 1976-78 at the Chicago law firm, Hopkins & Sutter. Not only that, but the partner I worked for on their cases (chiefly union sympathy strikes at coal mines in Southern Illinois) was George Kelm, who is credited as being one of the two people that turned the Woods Fund to the left. Kelm, now deceased, was a down-to-earth guy who seemed quite at home in the hurly-burly of a Southern Illinois coal strike. I didn't know his politics, but I would have suspected that they were right of center. One obituary reported that he was a fiscal conservative who was devoted to the problems of children and families.
About the same time I left Hopkins (1978), Kelm also left to become the CEO and later the chairman of Sahara Enterprises, which was founded by the Woods family. Kelm was also the head of my law school's alumni board. The Woods Fund was created to focus on children by Kelm and staff director Jean Rudd (who probably coincidentally has the same last name as former Weather Underground fugitive Mark Rudd).
According to the website DiscovertheNetworks:
In the early 1990s, George Kelm became WCF [Woods Charitable Foundation] President and, with the assistance of Staff Director Jean Rudd, moved the Fund politically to the left. Kelm and Rudd then created a separate entity, which they named the Woods Fund of Chicago; Kelm, who was active in the Council on Foundations, became the Woods Fund's first President.
This new Fund focused on welfare reform, affordable housing, the quality of public schools, race and class disparities in the juvenile justice system, and tax policy as a tool in reducing poverty. The Fund supported the concept of an expanding welfare state allocating ever-increasing amounts of money to the public school system, and the redistribution of wealth via taxes.
The Woods Fund of Chicago's current President is Deborah Harrington, who served on former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar's Taskforce on Human Services Reform.
A notable Woods board member is William Ayers, who in the 1960s was a member of the terrorist group Weatherman, and was a wanted fugitive for over a decade as a result of the group's bombing campaign; today Ayers is a Professor of Education at the University of Illinois. In 2002 the Woods Fund made a grant to Northwestern University Law School's Children and Family Justice Center, where Ayers' wife, Bernardine Dohrn, was employed.
A former President of the Woods Fund was Maria G. Valdez, a member of the Regional Council of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the most influential Hispanic advocacy group in the United States. Barack Obama is a former Board member of the Fund. . . .
Woods Fund philanthropy is founded on the axiom that there are "structural barriers to job opportunities, job retention and job advancement" that harm the "working poor." The Fund also condemns what it considers discrimination directed against those "having prison records or felony convictions that make it difficult for them to enter the workforce."
The Woods Fund has given sizable grants to
the Midwest Academy;
the Tides Foundation;
the Tides Center;
the Nature Conservancy;
AGAPE Youth Development;
the Arab American Action Network;
the Center for Community Change;
the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues;
the Community Justice Initiative;
the Center for Law and Human Services;
the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability;
Grassroots Collaborative (for American Friends Service Committee);
Latin United Community Housing Association;
the Center for Economic Progress;
the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless;
the Chicago Rehabilitation Network;
the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights;
the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights;
the Juvenile Justice Initiative of Illinois;
the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing;
the National Center on Poverty, Inc.;
Protestants for the Common Good;
the Public Action Foundation;
the Community Justice for Youth Initiative;
the Safer Foundation;
the Woodstock Institute;
Work, Welfare and Families;
the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN);
the About Face Theater Collective;
Day Laborer Collaboration;
Business and Professional People for the Public Interest;
the Coalition of African Service Providers;
the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law;
the Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities;
Urban Outreach; and
the Proteus Fund.
Note that among the recipients of the Woods Fund's largesse is Northwestern children's clinic and ACORN, which was accused of systematic fraud in voter registration. I don't know much about most of the other recipient organizations (I expect that others might Google them to find out more), but at least some of them have excellent reputations.
UPDATE: More here.