Obama Worked to Distance Self From Blagojevich Early On

President-elect Barack Obama addresses the indictment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) during a news conference in Chicago on Thursday. Video by washingtonpost.com
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008

Like every other politician in Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich waited for Barack Obama's call this summer. He told colleagues that he expected a speaking role at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, a nice bit of payback for being the first governor to endorse the senator from Illinois in his campaign for president. By showing off a connection to Obama in Denver, Blagojevich hoped to repair his own diminished reputation.

Obama's campaign made speaking offers to the Illinois treasurer, the comptroller, the attorney general and a Chicago city clerk. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) was asked to introduce Obama on the convention's final night; Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (Ill.) was told he would speak on television during prime time. Finally, fed up and embarrassed that he still had heard nothing, Blagojevich joked to a crowd at the Illinois State Fair that, yes, he also had been asked to speak -- at 4 a.m., in a Denver area men's bathroom.

Long before federal prosecutors charged Blagojevich with bribery this week, Obama had worked to distance himself from his home-state governor. The two men have not talked for more than a year, colleagues said, save for a requisite handshake at a funeral or public event. Blagojevich rarely campaigned for Obama and never stumped with him. The governor arrived late at the Democratic convention and skipped Obama's victory-night celebration at Chicago's Grant Park.

Even though they often occupied the same political space -- two young lawyers in Chicago, two power brokers in Springfield, two ambitious men who coveted the presidency -- Obama and Blagojevich never warmed to each other, Illinois politicians said. They sometimes used each other to propel their own careers but privately acted like rivals. Blagojevich considered Obama naive and pretentious and dismissed his success as "good luck." Obama disparaged Blagojevich for what he viewed as his combativeness, his disorganization and his habit of arriving at official events half an hour late.

Under different circumstances, friends said, Obama might have derived some satisfaction from seeing Blagojevich handcuffed for allegedly trying to sell off Obama's vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. But, only six weeks after Obama won the presidency by casting himself as a reformer, the Blagojevich scandal is a jarring reminder that Obama's political origins are in a city and state long tainted by corruption.

Blagojevich was elected in 2002 as a reform governor, but he has faced a series of investigations and charges of ethical irregularities ever since.

"Obama saw this coming, and he was very cautious about not having dealings with the governor for quite some time," said Abner Mikva, a former congressman and appeals court judge who was Obama's political mentor in Chicago. "The governor was perhaps the only American public officeholder who didn't speak at the convention, and that wasn't by accident. He's politically poisonous. You don't get through Chicago like Barack Obama did unless you know how to avoid people like that."

But Obama and Blagojevich shared pieces of the Chicago political network, which is why this has been an uncomfortable week for Obama's presidential transition team. Senior adviser David Axelrod once advised Blagojevich. Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a developer who was convicted in June of fraud and money laundering, raised money for both men. Robert Blackwell Jr., a longtime Obama friend, served on Blagojevich's gubernatorial transition team. Blagojevich appointed one of Obama's closest confidants, Eric Whitaker, as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The president-elect's connection to Blagojevich is emblematic of his political rise in Chicago. Obama had contact with corruption, but rarely firsthand. He relied on the establishment when he needed it, but he maintained enough distance to cast himself as an outsider.

"Few people I've ever known have as good a sense about who might end up getting you in trouble," said Denny Jacobs, a retired Illinois politician from East Moline who befriended Obama when they both served in the state Senate. "It's like a sixth sense. Chicago's a mess, and he was surrounded by it. But he knew the people that could drag you down and tarnish your image."

Even though they both began their careers in Chicago, Blagojevich and Obama operated on distinct tracks. Blagojevich, the son of a steelworker who was born in Serbia, grew up on the city's predominantly white North Side and rode a pair of buses with his mother to his first Chicago Cubs game. He married the daughter of a gritty, deal-making alderman and entered politics as an unapologetic product -- and representative -- of the Chicago Democratic machine. He drew support from the city's white middle class and was elected to the state legislature in 1992.

Obama, a transplant from Hawaii and New York City, moved into the progressive, integrated Hyde Park neighborhood and attended White Sox games on the South Side. In his campaign for state Senate, he cast himself as the righteous alternative to what he called "old-school politics" and pitched his case to a coalition of African Americans and Hyde Park's liberal upper class.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company