The myth of Obama as state Senate reformer
September 19, 2012 | 11:51 pm | Modified: September 20, 2012 at 12:01 am 60Comments
Former Illinois state
Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a maverick Republican and reformer, said Obama
never fought corruption, by Republicans or by Democrats: "He never
wanted to upset the apple cart with the Chicago machine."
Shortly after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, Prairie State Blue, a liberal blog,
attributed his victory to the fact that Illinois' deeply entrenched
government corruption had forced "political reformers" in the state
legislature like Obama "to network outside the traditional political
The claim illustrated Obama's success throughout his career
at presenting himself as an outsider and reformer even as he became a
skillful operator inside one of the nation's most corrupt political
Earlier this year, a study by the Illinois Institute of Government and
Public Affairs pointed to the convictions in recent years of four
governors, two congressmen, a state treasurer, an attorney general and
11 state legislators.
"The two worst crime zones in Illinois are the governor's mansion in
Springfield and the City Council Chambers in Chicago," said study author
It was into such an environment that Obama stepped when he was first elected in 1996 as an Illinois state senator.
Former Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a maverick Republican and reformer, told The Washington Examiner that Obama never fought corruption, even when it was being done by Republicans.
"I've never seen him fight corruption. He never wanted to upset the apple cart with the Chicago machine," Fitzgerald said.
After serving with Obama for two years in the Illinois Senate,
Fitzgerald defeated Sen. Carol Moseley Braun in 1998 and served one term
in the U.S. Senate. His family has been in Illinois banking for several
In Springfield, Fitzgerald was a leader of a reform-minded state
legislative caucus known as the "Fab Five." The group's members were
Republicans who had been elected in 1992. They fought the establishments
in both major parties while seeking to increase openness and
transparency in government.
Fab Fiver Steve Rauschenberger told the Examiner that he and his reformist colleagues were taken aback when Obama rejected the group's informal invitations to join them.
"When Barack first arrived, there was a lot of hope that
maybe he was the intellectual bridge, the pragmatic Democrat from
Chicago who was not part of the machine that we could perhaps talk to
about broad-based consensus policies to change public policy that wasn't working," he said.
"He appeared to be interested for a good 90 days," Rauschenberger said.
"In March or April of that year, though, he had made it pretty clear he
wasn't interested in risk-taking or challenging institutions or
challenging the Chicago machine's lock on a lot of the mechanics of
government in Cook County in Chicago."
An Examiner review of Fab Five initiatives from 1995 to 2000 identified 22 proposals,
including sweeping government procurement reforms like requiring open,
competitive bidding for state contracts. Obama missed votes on several
of the proposals, and those he supported were approved unanimously.
"He was nowhere to be found on reform," Fab Fiver Chris Lauzen told the Examiner. "I reached out to Barack. My wife and I took Barack and Michelle to dinner."
Lauzen said Obama "was not on the playing field. In my
opinion, Barack Obama was a product and beneficiary of how politics are
practiced in Illinois. It would be impossible to call him a reformer."
State Sen. Dave Syverson, another Fab Fiver, said, "I don't recall any
cases when he was overtly standing up to the machine at all."
Some of Obama's reluctance about the Fab Five may have stemmed from his
occasional golf outings and lunches with the state's top gambling
lobbyist, Alfred G. Ronan.
Ronan was well-known in Illinois political circles for passing out cash
contributions to supporters off the floor of the legislative chambers.
Obama himself took $10,500 from Ronan and changed his position on a
gambling bill afterward, according to the Los Angeles Times. Ronan told
the Times that Obama always paid his own way on the outings.
There was also the regular Wednesday night poker game organized by
Democratic state Sen. Terry Link. Obama and three other state Senate
Democrats in Springfield were regular attendees, along with several
lobbyists, Link said.
"It started out with five of us, then it
escalated where there were a couple of lobbyists that were friends of us that we brought in," Link told the Examiner.
"Barack was not of the machine, but he was adjacent to it,"
said Cynthia Canary, former director of the Illinois Campaign for
Political Reform, the largest statewide reform organization.
Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Chicago's
Roosevelt University and a popular WGN radio host, noted David Axelrod,
Obama's campaign strategist, originated from Mayor Richard M. Daley's
"You see his main adviser, David Axelrod, who also was Daley's chief
adviser and ran his campaigns. So it was very much that Obama's people
were in the Daley camp."
A month after Daley's patronage chief was
indicted for rigging city jobs and promotions, Axelrod defended
patronage in a 2005 Chicago Tribune op-ed. He argued that to satisfy
constituent needs, politicians are often forced to "use the influence
they have to meet those needs, including sometimes the exchange of
favors -- consideration for jobs being just one. "
Fitzgerald said Obama never confronted Daley. "He never took on Mayor Daley, even when clearly city hall was out of bounds. He never fought corruption in Cook County government."
Canary said Obama's endorsement of Rod Blagojevich and other Daley allies worried her.
"Obama has made a number of endorsements, not just the Blagojevich one
-- he gave a number for the Chicago City Council that were complete
whack jobs. I have never understood it or why he felt he needed to it,"
Some have noted that Obama helped write a 1997 legislative gift ban. The bipartisan effort included 23 exemptions.
Green pointed out that the gift ban didn't stop corruption. "In 1998,
George Ryan was governor; now he's in prison. After him, Rod Blagojevich
went to prison, so clearly it didn't have any impact."