Elections

Tillman running for Congress to support President Obama's policies

Candidates across the country have been inspired to run for public office by the tea party movement.

And although it comes with a twist on the theme, the same can be said of Robert Tillman, a retired court services officer making a bid for the Democratic nomination in the 4th Congressional District.

Tillman said he had thought about running since mid-2008. But his decision was cemented when he saw Confederate flags being waved at the April 15, 2009, tea party demonstration near Mid-Continent Airport.

Tillman pointed out that Kansas had been a Union state and the flag "represents segregation in Kansas, and to most African-Americans."

He said he also was offended by the tea party's "derogatory signs about President Obama, taxation and America."

"I thought somebody should do something about it," he said.

At a time when the president's approval rating is low and many Democratic candidates in Republican-leaning districts are running away from him, Tillman says, "I support him 100 percent."

He said he wants to go to Washington to help Obama's efforts to improve the economy, regulate banking, and reform health care and immigration.

"He has a tough job, and he cannot do it alone," Tillman said. "He needs our support."

Tillman said he's been watching a lot of C-SPAN to learn how Congress works and what he sees is Republicans "out to get President Obama any way they can."

Case in point, according to Tillman, is congressional reaction to the Gulf oil spill. Capitol Hill Republicans have blasted the president from both sides, saying that he didn't do enough about the spill while also saying he has been too tough with BP, the company whose damaged well caused the problem.

"It's BP's responsibility to fix the oil leak, not the president's," Tillman said. "Whatever he (Obama) does, he's going to be criticized by someone, mostly the Republicans."

But Tillman also faults some Democrats in Congress for not uniting behind the president like the Republicans have united against him.

Some Democrats are "afraid to come out and support him as our party leader," Tillman said. "I am not afraid."

Economy, jobs are key

The biggest issues are the economy and jobs, Tillman said. He strongly supports further extension of unemployment benefits that Republican representatives have been blocking.

Tillman, who has three bachelor's degrees and a master's in sociology — all from Wichita State University — is a strong supporter of schools and job retraining programs.

"I believe that many of the old jobs are not coming back," he said. "We need to educate ourselves out of this crisis."

He said he bears no ill will toward rank-and-file Republicans — they're suffering in the recession, too.

But he said he is deeply disappointed in their leaders for opposing "all the major things that would help people."

"I don't see how they can do that and continue to get away with it."

As for the president's performance, "I think he's doing an excellent job on all fronts. I intend to help him do better," Tillman said.

Fundraising challenge

To get there, Tillman will need a lot of help himself.

His opponent in the Democratic primary, state Rep. Raj Goyle, D-Wichita, has backing from most of the party structure and has raised about $1 million.

Tillman said he has raised less than $5,000 and would probably be heavily outspent in a general election by whoever emerges from the five-candidate Republican primary.

Tillman said he expected that all along.

"People who are unemployed and underemployed and have bill collectors calling, those are the people I'm trying to help," he said. "They don't have the funds to make those kinds of contributions."

He said his underfunded campaign might resonate with poor and middle-class voters having to do more with less in their own lives.

However, "With all that being said, send money right away," he added, chuckling.

He's tried to make up for lack of money for mass media by making personal appearances at service clubs, party meetings and other get-togethers around the district.

He owns a distinctive and memorable vehicle, a shiny black 2000 Prowler roadster, which he drives to campaign appearances and in parades.

Longtime Wichitan

Tillman appears to be well-liked even in the opposition camp.

State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, is a strong supporter of Goyle.

But she said she also admires Tillman for his commitment to community service, particularly in her northeast Wichita district.

He's served on community boards including the United Way, the NAACP, the Regional Prevention Center, Project Freedom and the local chapter of the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice.

He also served on a committee to establish a credit union in northeast Wichita and on a multiagency task force on reintegrating prisoners into the community.

Tillman, 64, has served as a Democratic precinct committeeman. But until his 2007 retirement, he was blocked from seeking higher office by rules governing court employees.

Born in Boley, Okla., Tillman has been a resident of Wichita since 1961.

His working career started in aircraft plants.

From there, he moved to a job as an assistant teacher in special education with Holy Family Center. He also has worked as an administrative aide for the city of Wichita and for Sedgwick County as a "teaching parent" at the Lake Afton Boys Ranch.

He became a court services officer in 1981.

Tillman's wife, Linda, is a principal in the Wichita school district.

Tillman acknowledges his candidacy is a long shot, but in this very strange political year, some long shots have paid off.

In South Carolina, unknown candidate Alvin Greene came out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination for Senate in a shocking upset of a well-funded and party-backed opponent.

"I thought about that," Tillman said. "It gave me a glimmer of hope I have a chance."

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