In Ads, GOP Stresses Obama's Ties to Chicago Developer

Antoin "Tony" Rezko was convicted of 16 counts of fraud, money laundering and abetting bribery. (Charles Rex Arbogast - AP)
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By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008

In recent weeks, Republicans launched a series of commercials designed to highlight what they consider a serious ethical lapse by Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama: his relationship with Chicago developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a longtime donor, former fundraiser and, now, convicted felon.

Bankrolled by rival John McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee, the ads allege that Rezko tutored Obama in the ways of shady politics and that Obama rewarded Rezko with millions in tax money.

Yet the emphasis on Obama's friendship with Rezko has had little impact on voters, polling data show, even after Rezko returned to the headlines this month. On Oct. 8, prosecutors asked a federal judge to delay his sentencing on 16 counts of fraud, money laundering and abetting bribery while "the parties engage in discussions." Analysts said that probably means that Rezko is cooperating with the widespread investigation of influence-peddling in Illinois.

The most direct indication that Rezko has not seriously damaged Obama's image was in a New York Times-CBS News poll last week that showed that among the 44 percent who said they were bothered by "anything" to do with Obama's background or past associations, one respondent mentioned Rezko.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that Obama held a 10-point advantage over McCain on the question of which candidate has higher personal and ethical standards. A poll earlier in the week had the senator from Illinois eight points up as the more honest and trustworthy candidate.

Obama has weathered repeated efforts to make Rezko an issue. During the Democratic primary, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) called Rezko a "slum landlord." Obama's foes have described his connections to Rezko as at odds with the candidate's reformer image.

"This relationship undercuts the entire message of Obama's career and campaign," said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

But Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Obama has "led the fight for ethics reform and worked to reduce the influence of money over the political process."

No evidence surfaced in Rezko's long federal trial to suggest any wrongdoing by Obama, but the two have a long history. Over the course of Obama's political career, Rezko raised contributions for him, introduced him to powerful aldermen and listened when Obama recommended a friend for a job. Rezko even offered expert real estate advice when Obama bought an expensive house on Chicago's South Side.

The two met in the early 1990s. Obama has said he was finishing Harvard Law School when Rezko and his business associates first contacted him about a job possibility in development.

David Brint, then-executive vice president at Rezmar, Rezko's development company, said he called Obama after he was named the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and later introduced him to Rezko.

When Obama entered politics a few years later, records listed three contributions on his first day of fundraising for his Illinois Senate bid. Two, totaling $2,000, came from Rezko's food company and an unincorporated business at the same address. Obama has estimated that Rezko personally raised 10 to 15 percent of his funds.

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