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Sunil Garg Headshot

Obama's Audacity Gap

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As a Presidential candidate, Barack Obama offers a compelling vision of change, promising to "take back our government" and to lead "in the fight for open and honest government". Recently, he boldly stated, "Part of my job in this race is to restore people's sense that you say what you mean and you mean what you say."

When I first heard this "audacious" rhetoric for change during Obama's Senatorial run in 2004, it deeply resonated with me (and not just because I'm another skinny kid with a funny name). After all, if ever there were a State in need of change, it would be Illinois. Currently, our three largest governments -- the State, the City of Chicago and Cook County -- are under federal investigation and among recent highlights are former Governor George Ryan going to prison, one of Mayor Richard Daley's top advisors' conviction for fraud (along with a host of others), and the indictments of current Governor Rod Blagojevich's top fundraisers, Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly. Yet, rather than translating his bold rhetoric of reform into action here within his home and challenging this corrosive culture, Obama has repeatedly acted in ways that reinforce it.

Let's take each Illinois government currently under federal investigation, starting with the Illinois state government and Obama's nearly two-decade relationship with the man who has come to epitomize pay-to-play politics in Illinois, the now-indicted Rezko. As recently as 2005, Obama partnered with Rezko to purchase his million-dollar home, although it was widely reported that Rezko was the target of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation. Under the deal with Rezko, Obama paid $300,000 less than the asking price for his home, while Rezko's wife paid full price for the vacant lot next door, only to turn around and sell Obama part of that lot a few months later. While Obama dismissed the deal as a "boneheaded mistake", this is an odd explanation for someone trumpeting judgment over experience. Even giving Obama the benefit of the doubt on the land deal, he is unable to explain how as a champion of the poor, he remained ignorant for years to the fact that Rezko was one of the largest slumlords in Chicago, including within Obama's own district, and although the law firm for which he was an attorney had helped Rezko secure more than $43 million in government funding for his apartment buildings. Given this questionable history with Rezko, one would hope (there's that word again) that Obama might support the legislation banning pay-to-play politics in Illinois. Such legislation overwhelming passed in the Illinois House, but Obama's self-described "political godfather", Emil Jones, inexplicably refuses to bring the legislation to vote in the Illinois Senate ... and Obama has remained silent.

Next, there is the Cook County government, a $3 billion operation that most taxpayers don't think about but which provides necessary and critical services to the indigent, particularly health care. In 2006, the Cook County Board President, John Stroger, faced near-daily chronicling of the incompetence, scandal, and patronage under his administration. These revelations included not only the typical employment of family members and friends, but more disturbingly what one Chicago newspaper referred to as a "catalogue of horrors" at a County hospital and what another uncovered at the Juvenile Detention Center where staff encouraged fights among the youth in "the gladiator room". Although normally untouchable, challenging Stroger was a formidable reform candidate, Forrest Claypool, who had been endorsed by every major paper in Chicago. This 'machine versus reform' race provided Obama with a seemingly tailored opportunity to demonstrate his new brand of politics and yet, although Claypool was a senior advisor to him during his Senate race, Obama chose not antagonize the machine and remained silent throughout the campaign, even after Stroger suffered a debilitating stroke a week before the election. Following Stroger's victory (52% to 48%), local committeemen selected Stroger's son, Todd, to replace him on the general election ballot, and despite general voter outrage over this cynical act of nepotism, Obama immediately embraced Todd Stroger, calling him a "a good progressive Democrat" who will "lead us into a new era of Cook County government." To no one's surprise, since winning the general election, Todd Stroger has hired a plethora of family members and friends, while slashing essential positions and services, including nurses and law enforcement officials, and proposing massive tax increases. When asked about the situation at the County under Todd Stroger, Obama said he was not following it, something he apparently has the luxury to ignore.

Finally, there is the ever-delicate City of Chicago and the Daley administration. While recognized for his accomplishments, Mayor Daley has been hounded for his near two-decade reign by accusations of unethical and illegal behavior within his administration, including hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to his friends and supporters. These concern were given further validity during Daley's patronage chief's trial, when it became known that an elaborate alternate human resource department was created to reward unqualified Daley campaign workers with taxpayer funded jobs (and pensions) and as a consequence, prevent qualified workers not aligned with Daley from getting jobs. While Obama spoke poetically during his Democratic National Committee speech about people being able to participate in the political process without fear of retribution, he unequivocally endorsed the Mayor, even as the Mayor continued to refuse to admit that his patronage chief did anything wrong. Even more confounding was that Obama made his endorsement early in the race, thereby sweeping the legs out from under two African-American candidates and undermining the hopes of many that the Mayor would finally have to publicly debate his rivals, something he has refused to do for over a decade.

For those of us with the "audacity" to hope for change and reform in Illinois, Obama has been a disappointment. Obama's actions in Illinois, as opposed to his rhetoric, have repeatedly put personal political expediency and partisan politics before change, principle and reform, and audacity seems only appropriate when there is no political risk to him. At the end of the day, it may be unrealistic to think that Obama would challenge the status quo in his home state and his actions may very well be an example of the old adage that "all politics are local." Yet, that thinking reduces Obama's expansive vision to one where change in Washington becomes the panacea for our nation's problems and where Obama only means what he says in a tiny sliver of land on the East Coast, and that doesn't feel like change, unity and certainly not audacity. One thing seems certain -- voters would do well to take a peak at who from Illinois is on Obama's bandwagon to D.C.