Obama’s Real Estate Deal and Local Entanglements

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In writing about Sen. Barack Obama’s real estate dealings with Antoin “Tony” Rezko–a big fundraiser in Illinois politics who’s currently under indictmnet for activities including allegedly “shaking down firms” with business before the state–Chicago Sun Times reporter Lynn Sweet draws an important distinction. Local Chicago reporters and columnists–including those from the Tribune (which broke the story), the Sun-Times, local radio and the local Associated Press crew–learn that Obama is involved with Rezko, and start asking hard questions. While other papers pick up the story, they’re in essence repeating what the local reporters have dug out.

Sweet sets the seen nicely, when the Senate Democrats’ ethics point man was confronted by reporters on Nov. 6, a day before the elections:

It was after a get-out-the-vote rally on Monday. Instead of the usual fawning Washington reporters tossing softballs as they worked up adoring stories about him running for president in 2008, Obama was taking questions from the City Hall news crew about his astoundingly bad judgment.

They drove up to Waukegan to find out for themselves why on earth Obama had anything to do with the shady, recently indicted Tony Rezko.

WLS radio reporter Bill Cameron put it this way in the lead-off question: “What in the world were you doing in a real estate deal with Tony Rezko?”

What indeed? John Kass of the Tribune offers an unflattering possibility (and also mentions Rezko’s relationship through real estate to another member of Congress, Rep. Luis Gutierrez). What interests me though is that we seem to have seen a lot of questionable ethical behavior arising not from the swarms of lobbyists that inhabit the Washington swamp, but rather from hometown entanglements. Like politics, an awful lot (though of course not all) of corruption is local, which may explain why local reporters are more inclined to ask Obama tough questions. A name like “Rezko” doesn’t mean much to most national reporters or people outside of Illinois (I’d certainly never heard of him). Those with local expertise, by contrast, know when to ask the tough questions.

Keeping tabs on a member of Congress’s local political supporters–and especially tracking whether fundraisers have other financial dealings with elected officials–would serve as a good early warning system that a member needs tougher citizen oversight.