Does what happens in Chicago stay in Chicago?
Tuesday’s arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on charges that included trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat has brought renewed national attention to the state’s corrupt political culture while creating a headache for the incoming administration.
Blagojevich’s declaration, recorded by wiretap, that a Senate seat “is a fu–ing valuable thing, you don’t just give it away for nothing,” is sure to enter the political scandal lexicon along with Larry Craig’s “I have a wide stance” and Marion Barry’s “the bitch set me up.”
In a press conference, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald emphasized that the 76-page complaint against Gov. Blagojevich contained “no allegations” against Obama. In fact, the document quotes Blagojevich using an Oedipus-themed slur in reference to Obama, and the governor lamented that the President-elect wasn’t willing to dole out bribes to secure the Senate seat for his preferred candidate.
Nonetheless, the wide-ranging scandal, which also included charges that Blagojevich tried to shake down a children’s hospital and have an editor removed from the Chicago Tribune, raises a number of important questions about our next president. The most immediate is whether Obama or any of his representatives had any interaction with Blagojevich over the past month regarding the Senate vacancy.
On this point, there is already some uncertainty.
“I had no contact with the governor or his office and so I was not aware of what was happening,” Obama told reporters in the wake of Tuesday’s indictment.
But soon after his statement, ABC’s Jake Tapper posted video of a November 23 interview in which senior adviser David Axelrod said of Obama’s involvement that “I know he’s talked to the governor.”
Later in the day, Axelrod claimed he was “mistaken” in the interview.
The scandal has also drawn attention to Obama’s relationship with Blagojevich, which Obama’s defenders say is tangential, while other evidence suggests otherwise.
In a July New Yorker article, reporter Ryan Lizza quotes Obama’s chief of staff designate, Rahm Emanuel, as saying that he and Obama served as key advisers to Blagojevich in his run for governor, along with two other campaign staffers. “We basically laid out the general election, Barack and I and these two,” Emanuel said, according to the magazine.
Lizza goes on to write that “a spokesman for Blagojevich confirmed Emanuel’s account, although David Wilhelm, who now works for Obama, said that Emanuel had overstated Obama’s role. ‘There was an advisory council that was inclusive of Rahm and Barack but not limited to them,’ Wilhelm said, and he disputed the notion that Obama was ‘an architect or one of the principal strategists.'”
What is clear is that Obama endorsed and campaigned for Blagojevich in 2002. In June of that year, he told Jeff Berkowitz, a local television interviewer, that his “main focus is to make sure that we elect Rod Blagojevich as governor,” and when asked whether he was working hard for him, Obama responded, “you betcha.”
Some of Obama’s signature moves could be seen in Blagojevich’s 2002 campaign: promising change and reform, tying his Republican opponent (Jim Ryan) to the unpopular Republican incumbent (George Ryan), and turning his unusual name into an asset and source of humor.
“How can you replace one Ryan with another Ryan and call that change?” Blagojevich asked at a rally that summer at the Illinois State Fair, according to an Associated Press account at the time. “You want change? Elect a guy named Blagojevich! Now that’s change.”
Obama also endorsed Blagojevich for reelection, even as the governor was embroiled in a controversy over hiring. “If the governor asks me to work on his behalf, I’ll be happy to do it,” Obama told the Chicago Daily Herald in July 2006.
Obama’s past political support for Blagojevich should renew concerns about the incoming president’s pattern of troubling associations, or at least, his willingness to look the other way in the face of wrongdoing if it’s in his political interests at the time.
Such was the case when he accepted fundraising and other favors from convicted businessman Tony Rezko even after the developer’s dealings were under public scrutiny, and when he derived political benefits from his decades-long membership in Jeremiah Wright’s church, tuning out the pastor’s disturbing views.
Thus far, most of Obama’s top appointments have not come from the world of Chicago politics, but there are prominent exceptions, including Axelrod, Emanuel, and Valerie Jarrett, who worked for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and will serve as a senior adviser in the Obama White House.
The looming question concerning the new administration is whether Obama could have thrived in a corrupt political environment that routinely produces the likes of Blagojevich without picking up a few tricks along the way.