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For Obama, Problems at Home?

By Dennis Byrne

Chicago--By popular acclaim, the winner of the mid-term elections is Barack Obama. If the number of studio appearances he made election night means anything, the Illinois Democratic Senator is a shoo-in for President, commissioner of baseball and the papacy.

Funny thing, though, in Illinois, where he was a minor player in the state Senate before national media adulation propelled him into the presidential spotlight, his glow might have begun to dim.

At question is a newly disclosed suspicious deal he made with an indicted political fundraiser to improve their adjoining properties in a pricey neighborhood on Chicago' South Side. The "neighbor" in the deal is Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who indicted for plotting to squeeze millions of dollars in kickbacks out of firms seeking state business. He has pleaded not guilty, but allegations muddied the campaign of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who nonetheless was re-elected Tuesday by ever-forgiving Illinois voters.

Apparently there's nothing illegal about the deal, made while Rezko was widely know to be the target of a federal corruption investigation, According to Chicago Tribune reports, Obama bought his house in June 2005 for some $300,000 less than the asking price. The same day, Rezko's wife bought the adjoining lot, paying the full $625,000 asking price. One question raised was whether Rezko's wife subsidized Obama's purchase of the $1-milllion-plus home, while providing a next door private preserve that can't be reached from a public street.

Obama first described his dealings with Rezko as ethical and proper, but a couple of days later acknowledged the arrangement might have appeared improper. He said in writing: "It was a mistake to have been engaged with him at all in this or any other personal business dealing that would allow him, or anyone else, to believe that he had done me a favor. For that reason, I consider this a mistake on my part and I regret it."

For Chicagoans accustomed to the sound of non-apologies, the statement had a familiar ring: If anyone thinks I did something wrong, I'm sorry I got caught.

Chicagoans also have noticed another curiosity: During Obama's recent and much-lauded African trip, he gravely criticized rampant government corruption there. Back in Illinois, he had plenty of similar opportunities to criticize what may be the most corrupt city/state government in the nation. But he took a pass, missing a great opportunity to demonstrate integrity and independence from the corrupt Democratic machine.

In the deluge of flaming media praise, such errors and omissions probably won't have much traction outside of Illinois. At best, they might get a mention in the inevitable media backlash against excessively hyped public figures.

Hyped? Many in Illinois have watched in amazement at the sudden elevation of a little-noticed state senator whose voting record is somewhat more liberal than the national media care to report. But issues might not matter, when it comes to such a personally attractive figure in a time when voters are craving for a political mute button and honesty.

Coincidentally, Obama's patty-cake with Resko comes as exit polls that indicate that the issue most on people's minds is political corruption and ethics. According to some analysts, this upsets the conventional wisdom that the Iraq war would be by far the item of most concern in the election. But when an Associated Press poll asked a sample of voters which issues were extremely important to their vote, 42 percent said corruption and ethics; 40 percent, terrorism; 39 percent, the economy; 37 percent, Iraq; 36 percent, values; and 29 percent, illegal immigration.

In that light, it is notable that Rezko and his companies donated at least $19,500 to Obama's campaigns. Rezko also held a 2003 fundraiser for Obama's U.S. Senate campaign.

In Chicago, most voters will consider this small potatoes, especially considering the unlimited opportunities that can be reaped when one of their own is in the White House.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist. dennis@dennisbyrne.net.

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