March 12th, 2008 12:00 am JAMES PITKIN | Special Section Stories

Obama Girl

This Portland lawyer knew Obama at Harvard Law. She’s still a fan.

Lisa Hay: Today (top) and seated on Obama’s left and other staff at the Harvard Law Review in 1990 (bottom).

As a second-year student at Harvard Law School in 1990, Lisa Hay made a bold decision and ran for one of the highest offices the school had to offer: president of the Harvard Law Review.

Taking leadership of the prestigious journal is like a gold star on a young lawyer’s résumé. But 18 years ago, Hay had one competitor whose skill at winning over voters was evident even then.

Hay’s classmates passed up her and a dozen other candidates, and went on to make a historic decision—choosing 28-year-old Barack Obama as the first black president of the journal since it was founded in 1887.

Hay, who went on to be elected treasurer of the law review, wasn’t sore about her loss. She’d known Obama since the start of their freshman year in 1988. Even then, she says, the future Illinois senator and Democratic presidential hopeful was a natural leader.

“You could tell he knew what he stood for,” Hay recalls. “Other law students would be posturing, arguing a certain way. He was persuasive because you could tell he really believed what he was saying.”

Hay—now 45, one year younger than Obama—is a federal public defender in Portland, representing clients charged with everything from drug distribution to murders on Native American reservations. Originally from Washington, D.C., she’s lived here for 10 years.

She hasn’t seen Obama since their class of 671 students graduated in 1991. But he left such an impression that she and her husband, Scott Smith, a history professor at Linfield College, have donated about $800 to his presidential campaign.

“I would encourage everyone to vote for him,” Hay says. “I think he would be a great president.”

After losing the election to Obama, Hay went on to work closely with him at the law journal, occasionally hanging out socially too. Obama has written about doing drugs and chasing girls in high school, but Hay remembers him at Harvard as serious but well-rounded, with a flair for putting people at ease.

She remembers him hanging out in the journal’s break room, where stressed-out editors would occasionally bicker. “He was always the guy who was just talking to people, seeing what they were thinking,” she says. “Not necessarily trying to smooth ruffled feathers, but he always seemed to take that role.”

Obama went from a law career into politics, but Hay took the opposite path, having gone to Harvard Law after working for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ failed 1988 presidential campaign.

Ironically, although Obama defeated Hay for president of the journal, she gave his own political career a decisive boost 14 years later—helping him land a gig as speaker at the 2004 Democratic presidential convention in Boston. That summer Hay was in Boston on business and had lunch with an old friend from the Dukakis campaign, Jack Corrigan. Corrigan was an aide to the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and helping organize the convention.

Obama, then a U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois with no national presence, was on the list of potential convention speakers. Hay told Corrigan she was impressed with Obama’s acceptance speech as president of the Harvard Law Review. Her most striking recollection: how Obama’s remarks reached past the audience of law students to black waiters in the dining hall who paused to listen, and later lined up to shake Obama’s hand.

Corrigan told Chicago Magazine last year that Hay’s recommendation was part of the reason he picked Obama to introduce Kerry, in a rousing speech that put Obama in the national spotlight for the first time.

Watching her old friend on TV now, Hay says he hasn’t changed much from his Harvard days. “He’s more seasoned,” she says. “But he says the same kind of things—the same drive to build people and build communities. That really is what he has always been saying.”

Read Todd Spivak's article
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