OPINION: JOHN FUND ON THE TRAIL
The president-elect could use his bully pulpit to drive a clean-up.
By JOHN FUND
The Wall Street Journal
DECEMBER 11, 2008
This week Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on charges that he conspired to sell Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat, among other misdeeds. At first the president-elect tried to distance himself from the issue: "It is a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment." But it quickly became clear that Mr. Obama would have to say more, and yesterday he called for Mr. Blagojevich to resign and for a special election to fill the vacant Senate seat.
What remains to be seen is whether this episode will put an end to what Chicago Tribune political columnist John Kass calls the national media's "almost willful" fantasy that Mr. Obama and Chicago's political culture have little to do with each other. Mr. Kass notes that the media devoted a lot more time and energy to investigating the inner workings of Sarah Palin's Wasilla, Alaska, than it has looking at Mr. Obama's Chicago connections.
To date, Mr. Obama's approach to Illinois corruption has been to congratulate himself for dodging association with it. "I think I have done a good job in rising politically in this environment without being entangled in some of the traditional problems of Chicago politics," he told the Chicago Tribune last spring. At the time, Mr. Obama was being grilled over news that he bought his house through a land deal involving Tony Rezko, a political fixer who was later convicted on 16 corruption counts. Rezko is mentioned dozens of times in the 76-page criminal complaint against Mr. Blagojevich.
Mr. Obama has an ambiguous reputation among those trying to clean up Illinois politics. "We have a sick political culture, and that's the environment Barack Obama came from," Jay Stewart, executive director of the Chicago Better Government Association, told ABC News months ago. Though Mr. Obama did support ethics reforms as a state senator, Mr. Stewart noted that he's "been noticeably silent on the issue of corruption here in his home state including, at this point, mostly Democratic politicians."
One reason for Mr. Obama's reticence may be his close relationship with the powerful Illinois senate president Emil Jones. Mr. Jones was a force in Mr. Obama's rise. In 2003, the two men talked about the state's soon-to-be vacant U.S. Senate seat. As Mr. Jones has recounted the conversation, Mr. Obama told him "You can make the next U.S. senator." Mr. Jones replied, "Got anybody in mind?" "Yes," Mr. Obama said. "Me."
Starting in 2003, Mr. Jones worked to burnish Mr. Obama's credentials by making him lead sponsor of bills including a watered-down ban on gifts to lawmakers. Most of Mr. Obama's legislative accomplishments came as result of his association with Mr. Jones.
In 2002, Mr. Obama turned up to help Mr. Blagojevich, a staunch ally of Mr. Jones, win the governor's mansion. Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama's incoming White House chief of staff, told The New Yorker earlier this year that six years ago he and Mr. Obama "participated in a small group that met weekly when Rod was running for governor. We basically laid out the general election, Barack and I and these two [other participants]."
Mr. Blagojevich won, but before long, problems surfaced. In 2004, Zalwaynaka Scott, the governor's inspector general, said his administration's efforts to evade merit-selection laws exposed "not merely an ignorance of the law, but complete and utter contempt for the law." Nonetheless, Mr. Obama endorsed Mr. Blagojevich's re-election in 2006.
This spring, many Democrats were so disgusted with Mr. Blagojevich that state House Speaker Michael Madigan drafted a memo on why Democrats should impeach Mr. Blagojevich. Mr. Madigan's "talking points" compared the corruption going on in the state to a tumor that must be removed.
But Mr. Madigan's move drew a rebuke from Mr. Jones. The Chicago Sun-Times story at the time quoted Mr. Jones saying he thought it was wrong for the speaker to "promote the impeachment of a Democratic Governor. . . Impeachment is unwarranted in my opinion, and should not be used as a political tool."
Many people were curious who Mr. Obama would side with in the dispute. Would it be with those Democrats who wanted to move aggressively against an apparently corrupt governor or with his old Chicago ally, Mr. Jones, who preferred to wait? Mr. Obama did neither. He kept silent. (I emailed the Obama campaign about Mr. Blagojevich's problems in June, but my question was ignored.)
To his credit, Mr. Obama did call Mr. Jones in September to urge passage of an ethics bill banning some office holders from accepting money from a business that has a $50,000 or larger contract with the state. The bill passed and takes effect on Jan. 1.
Mr. Obama has spoken out forcefully against corruption outside Illinois. Kathy Tate-Bradish, a Chicago teacher active in education in Africa, gushed on Mr. Obama's campaign blog during his visit to Kenya last year about his "amazing" speech against corruption during his visit there.
"Corruption is the single biggest thing keeping not only Kenyans, but all Africans, down," she wrote. "Corruption is just killing them but nobody has been able to speak out against it because they fear for their own security. Barack spoke out against it, publicly, in Kenya. I honestly think the speech he gave will be one of the major factors that turns the tide against corruption."
Mr. Obama says he plans to return often to Chicago as president. "Our friends are here. Our family is here. And so we are going to try to come back here as often as possible," he told the Los Angeles Times this month. Perhaps during one of those trips he could find time to forthrightly address the corruption issues that the state will be sorting through in the weeks and months ahead. A president has a powerful bully pulpit. A few words from Mr. Obama could force real and lasting change in Illinois.
Mr. Fund is a columnist for WSJ.com.