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December 13, 2008
Axelrod, the Obama team, and political corruption
David Axelrod is largely - and rightly - credited with successfully crafting Barack Obama's campaign message machine and using it to great effect during the campaign.
But before he elected a president, Axelrod advised campaigns for a host of politicians including Chicago's mayor Richard Daley. In fact, he considers himself an expert in "urban politics" - which translated means big city Democratic machine politics.
It is important to note that Republicans have their own "machines" - mostly in the south where "courthouse politics" employs many of the same patronage, kickback, and even "pay to play" schemes you routinely find in Democratic-run big cities. No party has a corner on corruption - which made the Democrat's "outrage" in 2006 at the "Republican culture of corruption" so laughable.
But Axelrod just elected Mr. Clean as president. And it is important to get a handle on what a man who will be a close advisor to President Obama in the White House thinks of Patrick Fitzgerald's corruption investigations.
Fitzy has taken down a host of pols in Chicago including aldermen, politically connected businessmen like Tony Rezko, and even 2 of Mayor Daley's closest aides in city hall.
That last scandal involved serious violations of a court ruling that was supposed to clean up the city's corrupt patronage system. Chicago mayors (and other big city pols) have used patronage as a means of controlling the Democratic party for decades. But a lawsuit against the practice in Chicago resulted in a ruling that most city jobs had to involve a fair hiring procedure where only the most qualified candidates would get government jobs.
Then in 2005, the Chicago Sun Times broke a fairly routine scandal involving the use of (or, in this case, the non-use) of city trucks - contracts to politically connected (and sometimes mobbed up) trucking firms that paid millions of dollars for little or no work. The city was entertained for weeks with stories of bribes being paid city employees to steer truck contracts to specific firms, ghost payrolling, lolligagging truckers drawing taxpayer monies for going golfing, and other examples of extraordinary venality on the part of city politicians.
Once Fitzy got involved, the investigation expanded to include the entire patronage system in Chicago. And what prosecutors found was simply astonishing; 30 city pols who routinely violated the patronage law by doctoring documents to show interviews with candidates that never happened, resume tampering, and other fraudulent actions all to get loyal campaign workers city jobs. Fitzy's investigation eventually reached deep into Daley's office as two of his closest aides - including his patronage chief Robert Sorich - were convicted in the case.
Here's how it worked:
And Axelrod? Here's what the new Senior Advisor to the President had to say about it: back in 2006:
As Axelrod has said, a too-zealous prosecutor can look at normal political behavior and suspect impropriety. In a 2006 Vanity Fair interview, the Obama aide complained about Fitzgerald's scrutiny of Chicago politics.
When you practice the art of politics amidst such sleaze and corruption, egregious lawbreaking can, I suppose, seem "innocent." But what does that reveal about the moral compass of people like Axelrod? When the rest of us are shocked and appalled at the routine and arrogant criminal conduct carried out by powerful people like Daley and Blagojevich, who obviously believe the rules followed by ordinary folk do not apply to them, do we really want moral pygmies like Axelrod anywhere near the seat of national government?
Indeed, Obama himself - now caught in the lie that he had no knowledge that any of his aides were meeting with Blagojevich's people about his senate seat - has shown a curious lethargy about the entire Blagojevich scandal, especially because he's known since a week after the election that Blago was shopping his seat to the highest bidder (See Jim Lindgren's timeline of the scandal that shows how Obama first, made it known he wanted his good friend Valerie Jarrett to get the appointment and within 24 hrs of a phonecon involving Blago and one of his advisors - probably Emanuel - he yanked her name from consideration and gave her a job in the White House.)
The Obama team will vigorously deny they knew anything about Blago's attempts to sell his senate seat but that just doesn't pass the smell test. Given how careless Blagojevich was about the spread of such information, it is inconcievable that the president-elect, whose Chicago and Springfield connections are as good as anyone's, wouldn't have been aware of what was going on.
But why should they not come forward with the truth? They didn't break any laws. The reason they won't and can't reveal their knowledge in this matter is because to do so would be to reveal a hole in their moral universe that shows that they considered Blago's auction of the senate seat "innocent" and nothing more than routine political horse trading - routine for the culture of corruption in Chicago and Springfield. Obama was smart enough to see a train wreck coming and pulled his good friend Jarrett from consideration while still allowing Emanuel to have input into the selection process. In short, there were no illegalities but rather an incredible ineptitude in recognizing a moral problem with Blago's criminality.
I am not sure what this portends for the next 4 years as far as the way the White House will operate. If you have a bunch of people who don't know or can't tell what's moral or immoral as far as political actions are concerned, what kind of scandals will be breaking by this time next year?