On the Prowl

The Big Fix

By From the February 2009 issue

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The Big Fix

Despite the dire talk on the U.S. economy coming from President Barack Obama and his economic advisers, many inside what was then the economic transition team, including Lawrence Summers, the head of the White House National Economic Council, have been telling Obama that the economy—and, more important, consumer sentiment—should begin to see some improvement by early spring, with the U.S. emerging from the recession by summer 2009. "We want full credit for the economic recovery, that's the bottom line," says a former Obama campaign staffer due to start work at Treasury after the inauguration. "There's the political part of this, which is the talking down of the economy and talking up the dire situation, and then there is the basic economic part, which is that internally, we see the fundamentals of the economy gaining traction in late spring, after the first quarter." 

The future Treasury official says there had been debate within the economic transition team about just how aggressive Obama and his economic surrogates should be in pushing the "greatest economic crisis of our time," but the political team, led by presidential adviser David Axelrod and the congressional Democratic leaders, set the message. 

"Axelrod is thinking about 2010 and the re-elect. He's not thinking about the economy the way we are." 

Another concern of the Obama economic team is that while core U.S. economic sectors like manufacturing may see some uptick from what is expected to be a trillions-dollar federal stimulus package, the larger and broader service economy may not see the same growth in new jobs. 

"The service sector has been hit perhaps harder than even manufacturing, and those jobs aren't going to be coming back anytime soon," says another Obama economic adviser. "We are expecting that many companies will become more efficient, and won't require many of those old jobs to be filled. That's one part of the equation a lot of us haven't factored in."

Another Anointed One 

Denver public schools chief Michael Bennet, who is scheduled to take Sen. Ken Salazar's seat once Salazar is confirmed as interior secretary, is a good example, some Democrats say, of what the party does far better than Republicans. "This is a guy who has been groomed from his time at Yale for big things, and the Democratic establishment has done everything it can to help," says a veteran Democratic operative in Washington. 

Bennet was an acolyte to longtime Democratic standard-bearer Lloyd Cutler, and served briefly as a partner at Cutler's firm after spending time at the Department of Justice as counsel to deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick, now a partner at Cutler's former law firm. Bennet rode those Clinton and Democratic ties to the chief of staff job with Denver's mayor, John Hickenlooper, which led to the school superintendent's job. 

"Bennet is a good example of what the Clinton Democrats do and have done just about better than anybody," says the Democrat operative. "We identify talent early on, and then help that talent get to where we need them. And we already have talent in Denver ready to fill the void that Bennet is creating."

Looking Good 

If Ken Blackwell, former Ohio secretary of state, wins the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, he owes a great deal not only to his conservative roots, but also to the social conservative RNC party apparatus and conservative party members like Michigan's Chuck Yob, who refused to surrender the party to moderates like former governors Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Blackwell's entry, which garnered less attention than other high-profile chair candidates who have sputtered of late—moderate and Huckabee stalking horse Chip Saltsman and former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele—surprised some, but filled a needed gap left when former Sen. Fred Thompson declined to enter the race after his name was floated by some party leaders. 

Blackwell was able to quietly build a team of solid conservatives who weren't willing to surrender control of the party to an individual with ties to a future presidential candidate, such as Saltsman or Michigan state party chair Saul Anuzis, who has some ties to Romney. 

Further, Blackwell gained the endorsement of Texas party chair Tina Benkiser, who herself had been mulling a run for the chairmanship. Her support broke the social conservative bottleneck that was created by the presence of Saltsman, and to a lesser degree, South Carolina state party hair Katon Dawson. At press time, it was believed that Blackwell had more than half of the 85 votes needed to win the chairmanship (there are 168 voting national committee members). Some press reports had Blackwell with only 30 votes, but RNC insiders say that had Chuck Yob remained in the race and not endorsed Blackwell, he would have held about 30 votes himself. "Blackwell has more votes than he's being given credit for," says one RNC insider. "The Benkiser deal has given him more votes than folks want to talk about because my guess is that about 40 to 50 votes on that committee are socially conservative."

Rubin, It's You 

The Obama transition team was aware of New Mexico governor Bill Richardson's relationship with CDR Financial Products, the firm currently under investigation, because Richardson had introduced the firm's founder, David Rubin, to Obama fundraisers during the Democratic convention in Denver last August. Richardson withdrew his name from nomination for commerce secretary due to a grand jury investigation into possible financial dealings between his New Mexico administration and Rubin's firm. But it isn't just Obama and Richardson that Rubin has ties to. 

According to federal law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation, federal officials are also looking into CDR's political and financial ties to Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, as well as to Democratic state and local officials in Illinois, California, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Rendell placed Rubin on a political patronage commission in Pennsylvania, and Rubin was also given a seat on a Los Angeles City commission back in 2002, both seemingly as the result of monetary contributions to political action committees. Rubin has also been a financial supporter of Rev. Al Sharpton. CDR also had close business ties to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, marketing and selling financial instruments created through low-income housing "lease to own" programs across the country. "If someone wants to understand just how deep Democrats are into the housing bubble and the economic crisis, they should look at some of the financial wheeling and dealing around some of those 'lease to own' programs," says a former Freddie Mac lobbyist based in Washington. "It's a veritable 'who's who' of Democratic state and local politics from New York to Los Angeles." 

Rubin, founded the firm known for many years as Chambers, Dunhill, Rubin & Co, though there is no Chambers or Dunhill associated with the firm. It appears that after a number of embarrassing IRS investigations into alleged back-door deals related to municipal bond financing in Atlanta and other localities in the late 1990s, the firm's name was changed to CDR Financial. 

According to a Bloomberg News report and New Mexico records, between 2003 and 2004, CDR made $951,566 advising the New Mexico Finance Authority on $420 million of interest rate swaps. By comparison, when New York City offered $900 million in derivatives, it paid its adviser about $400,000. 

"Long before Bill Richardson was governor, New Mexico was known to be one of the most corrupt states in the country," says a current Federal Bureau of Investigations official who has overseen criminal investigations related to drug trafficking and organized crime in the state. "If there is anything to this investigation, it appears that it's just politics as usual for New Mexico."

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