POLITICS
01/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Obama Fought Through The Illinois Ethics Swamp

The arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich on charges of widespread corruption has revived a somewhat dead meme: that Barack Obama, despite his pleas for good-government, is and always will be a product of the ethically-lax Chicago machine.

It is not, necessarily, guilt by association. After all, Obama did emerge from Chicago politics. But to claim that he is tainted by his political geography is a narrow rendering of history. For starters, despite Illinois' terrible reputation, the state has made some progress on the ethics front (though it could hardly be called a shining beacon of transparency and accountability). More importantly, Obama himself was one of the catalysts in moving the state from its murky history.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday morning that the President-elect played an important role in helping pass the ethics bill that ultimately was responsible for Blagojevich's downfall. Several months ago, Obama placed a call to his mentor Emil Jones, imploring the state Senate president to let go of a hold on legislation that would have prohibited contractors from donating to politicians who oversaw their work. The bill, passed over Blagojevich's objections, compelled the governor to quickly press state contractors for donations before the new law took affect on January 1. That, in turn, pushed authorities to ramp up their case against Blagojevich.

What went unmentioned in the Times story was how Obama was roped into the process: not out of some drawn-out effort to bring him on board, but, rather, his own interest in the topic of ethics legislation. According to Cindi Canary, Executive Director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, Obama never was contacted about pushing the bill. In a conversation with a local reporter, she mentioned that the best (perhaps, only) way to remove Jones' hold would be to get the then-Democratic candidate to give him the call. The reporter printed the statement and gradually it filtered its way to Obama's people (who, to be fair, would not shy away from demonstrating their good government bonafides in the heat of a presidential campaign). A day or two later, Canary recalls, "Barack called Emil."

"When I heard that now President-elect Obama called, I almost fainted," she said. "I was like, 'Oh my god, I just interrupted national politics.' I felt kind of bad. But the truth is, I was happy. It is what we needed from our U.S. Senator."

Also downplayed in the Times piece was just how far-reaching, at least by the standards of Illinois politics, the contractor bill truly was. The legislation limits "any business entity whose contracts with State agencies, in the aggregate, annually total more than $50,000," from "making any contributions to any political committees established to promote the candidacy of (i) the officeholder responsible for awarding the contracts or (ii) any other declared candidate for that office." The same rules apply for business entities with "pending bids and proposals" exceeding $50,000, and "any affiliated entities of affiliated persons of such business entity."

Ethics experts applauded the passage of the law, which took nearly three years to complete -- primarily because Blagojevich obstructed the process at every move, under the seemingly-false guise that he wanted something stronger. They saw in it a template for future reforms.

"In a state like Illinois, where we have no restrictions, one of the tricky things in passing campaign finance reform is that you have to come in with some sort of infrastructure," said Canary. "A contractor ban is by no means the be all or end all of where we are trying to get. But it is something we can build support around. People can't imagine how immensely difficult it was to get this bill passed."

Of course, Canary and others readily admit that Illinois remains at the bottom of the ethics heap. The state, according to the 2007 rankings by the Center for Public Integrity received an "F" (37th out of 50) for its disclosure laws. State candidates, meanwhile, are allowed to take unlimited amounts of contributions from whomever offers up the cash -- making Illinois one of only a handful of states in the country to have no such restrictions. And it was only a decade ago that state officials passed legislation that banned a candidate from using political funds for personal use. The recent run of bad-apple governors simply adds to this porous image.

"I think that any strengthening of Illinois ethics law should be considered a move in the right direction. Their financial disclosure law failed our ethics survey, I think every year we did it," said Sarah Laskow, States Project Researcher for The Center for Public Integrity. "Illinois just may have surpassed Rhode Island and New Jersey for the reputation as the most corrupt state in the union."

But a certain amount of progress has been made, and the contractor act should be viewed in this context. A similar step forward took place in 1998, when officials passed a bill that made Illinois one of the first states to require electronic disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures as well as a ban on gifts to politicians.

"That 1998 bill was really one of the first pieces on substantive ethics legislation since we have seen since the 1970s," said Canary.

That effort was spearheaded by former Senator Paul Simon and shepherded through the state legislature by Obama.