Monday, March 03, 2008

Tony Rezko and the Obama image

On the eve of yet another round of crucial primaries, Barack Obama will be stumping for votes in Texas - which means he'll be 1000 miles away from Tony Rezko. No doubt he'd like to keep it that way.

His old friend and fundraiser, a real-estate hustler and political fixer who also helped Obama swing a nice deal for a sumptuous house, is set to stand trial today in Chicago on federal bribery, kickback and extortion charges. Obama is not mentioned in the Rezko indictment, nor is there evidence that Obama performed any favors for Rezko in exchange for Rezko's financial generosity. However, their past ties - and Obama's general reluctance to discuss those ties - is evidence that Obama is not necessarily as saintly as his image would suggest.

I doubt the Rezko case will have much of an impact on the voters in Texas and Ohio tomorrow. The details are too "inside baseball"; as Obama strategist David Axelrod said yesterday on ABC News, "this is not what people want us to be talking about. They want to talk about their lives, their problems" (which is exactly what the Clintons used to say in 1992, when Bill's aberrant behavior was front and center). Nevertheless, Obama in this campaign has painted himself as an ethics purist; therefore, he needs to be assessed accordingly.

Which is why it's noteworthy that his judgment seems less than stellar, at least with respect to this particular friend.

Rezko helped Obama become a credible U.S. Senate candidate in 2004, raising at least $150,000 for the upstart state legislator, and the court documents reportedly suggest that Rezko played fast and loose with campaign finance laws (without Obama's knowledge) in order to make it happpen. But that's the small stuff. The gist of the Rezko story is that Obama decided in early 2005 to do some real-estate business with Rezko even though the guy at the time was under active federal investigation, and was being sued by various creditors in a dozen different lawsuits.

Obama had his eye on a house near the University of Chicago, but it came with an adjoining lot that he could not afford. The seller insisted that the house and the lot were a package deal. Things worked out beautifully in June 2005. Rezko bought the lot at the full asking prices - or, more accurately, he bought it in his wife's name, in order to keep his creditors at bay - and Obama got the house for $300,000 less than the asking price. Not long after, Obama expanded his yard by swinging a deal with Mrs. Rezko to buy a portion of that lot.

There are no indications by any authorities that these dealings were illegal. Still, in politics, appearances matter. Obama has virtually presented himself as a paragon of clean government. Yet here he was electing to do business with a guy who was already under a legal cloud. Rezko had been mentioned, in numerous press accounts dating back to 2003, as an alleged shakedown artist, a confidant of the Democratic governor who was suspected of extorting money from prospective government appointees. Obama, nevertheless, insisted on TV two months ago that "no one had an inkling" about Rezko's legal woes during their relationship.

It must be embarrassing for Obama to be rebuked by the good-government watchdogs in Illinois; as Jay Stewart of the state's Better Government Association has reportedly said (to various news organizations), Obama "should have been on high alert" at the time he was house-hunting. Indeed, Stewart said, "If you run as an agent of change, a reformer...that's holding yourself to a pretty high standard. But when you're laying out that kind of makes sense for people to say, 'Let's look at what you've done. Let's see if your rhetoric matches with reality."

Obama has responded sluggishly to the Rezko story. More than a year ago, he released a mea culpa statement: "It was a mistake to have been engaged with (Rezko) at all in this, or any other personal business dealing that would allow him, or anyone else, to believe that he had done me a favor."

Since then, the candidate has generally remained vague on the details, reportedly claiming that he couldn't remember how the real-estate deal with Rezko came into being ("I don't recall exactly"..."I am not clear"), but that, after an initial conversation with Rezko, "I just worked through my real estate broker." Last month, however, Obama added one new detail, telling reporters that he and Rezko had toured the house together prior to the deal.

The Chicago press corps has other questions - such as whether Obama ever asked Rezko to find jobs for Obama allies in the Democratic governor's administration - but answers have been slow in coming. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet wrote the other day, "Obama has never agreed to an interview with the reporters from the Chicago papers who know the story best, and it has not been for lack of trying." (On ABC yesterday, Obama strategist Axelrod said that Sweet was "wrong," and that the Rezko saga has been "thoroughly reviewed."

I'd leave it to Democratic primary voters, assuming they care, to determine whether Obama's ties to the indicted Rezko (house deal, roughly $150,000 in campaign money raised) are more or less problematic than Hillary Clinton's ties to the escaped felon Norman Hsu (no house deal, roughly $850,000 in campaign money raised). Perhaps they balance out on the merits (or lack thereof), if one considers that politicians are always going to attract hustlers.

On the other hand, Obama's core pitch is that Clinton is a typical pol and he is not. By that measure, perhaps he comes off as the loser. And here's another measure, as proposed by Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz this morning: "Would Clinton have skated as easily (in the media) if she were found to have...bought land from an indicted businessman, as in the Rezko case?...That is hard to imagine."

Nor would Obama's image be well served if he winds up being called to testify this spring in the Rezko trial - for the defense, no less. He might want to rack up a larger delegate lead before the mileage between him and Rezko is narrowed.


So on one front, Obama is laboring not to be seen as just another politician. Yet on another front, he's laboring not to be seen as a foreign wierdo with a funny name and an aversion to the red, white, and blue. I wrote about that in a print column yesterday.