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Four Stumps in the Water for Obama

By Charles Lipson

As the high-water mark for Barack Obama recedes, his campaign must now confront several dangerous stumps that were once hidden below the surface. The problems began with Obama's long attachment to Rev. Wright, Trinity United Church, and Black Liberation Theology, but they won't end there.

So, what issues are now lurking for Obama?

The first is the volatile mix of race and religion, begun with the Rev. Wright controversy. Videos have now surfaced of virulent race-baiting by yet another Chicago preacher with ties to Obama, the Rev. James Meeks. Obama was not a member of Meeks's church and their connection may be only a tactical alliance between prominent local figures. That's the question: how close are those ties?

Meeks is no ordinary pastor. He is an important political and religious figure in African-American Chicago. He not only leads a mammoth congregation, he is an Illinois state senator and a key player in Jesse Jackson's powerful local political organization, which is squarely behind Obama's run for the Presidency.

Meeks's sermons have called white mayors "slave masters" and denigrated moderate black politicians with the "n" word. Nor is he backing away from those slimy views. He has reiterated and defended them in recent interviews with Chicago's local news media, which smells blood in the water.

If close ties between Meeks and Obama are discovered, the problems raised by Rev. Wright will come blazing back, and the damage will be severe. Unfortunately for Obama, even if the ties are more remote--cordial rather than close--his candidacy will probably suffer. How can it possibly help to have political allies screaming racial epithets and then have those rants played again and again on cable news and YouTube? The more people watch, the more it undermines Obama's most basic appeal--that he is a decent man who wants to unite people of goodwill and move the country beyond its terrible history of racial division.

Obama's second problem is his most important patron in Illinois politics: Emil Jones. Jones heads the Illinois State Senate and is one of the two most powerful legislators in Springfield. He played a vital role in Obama's rise in state politics and, most significantly, he blessed Obama's underdog candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

Now that Obama is playing on a national stage, his ties to Jones raise uncomfortable questions about his years in Illinois politics. That's because Jones is a old-fashioned, wheeler-dealer, the sort that Mike Royko used to write about when he was shredding Richard J. Daley and the Cook Count Democratic machine. A modern version of that machine is still kicking in Springfield, where it is known as the Combine. It includes Republicans as well as Democrats, and it has been oiling the gears of state politics for decades.

State contractors, when they are not under indictment, regularly lament the problem of "pay to play" politics. Not surprisingly, the Illinois politicians who run the system and reap its rewards have been slow to mandate ethics reform. Jones is among the most significant roadblocks. The question for Obama: Just how close are his links to Emil Jones and this seamier side of Illinois politics?

The Rezko trial highlights another problem for Obama, potentially a devastating one, though it is unlikely to arise for several months or more. Antoin "Tony" Rezko is on trial for taking large bribes in return for political favors. The feds allege that he was able to steer state contracts and policy decisions, such as authorization to build hospitals in specific locations, because he was so close to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (for whom he was a top fundraiser) and because he was willing to share the graft with his cronies. Alas for Tony Rezko, one of those cronies has now flipped, and his damning testimony is corroborated by plenty of wiretap evidence. Close observers of the trial think Rezko is in deep trouble. Obama's name has come up only a few times, and no one has alleged any connection between these charges and the candidate.

Still, Rezko problems are bad news for Obama because the two have close, long-standing ties. Obama initially downplayed those ties and minimized the money Rezko had raised for him. When local reporters raised pointed questions, Obama declined to answer. He broke that silence at a strategic moment, just as the Rev. Wright story hit and the national media was focused on nothing else. That's when Obama found time to give extensive interviews about Rezko to the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. Predictably, the story got some play locally but was drowned out nationally.

Rezko's connection to Obama began well before Obama ran for office. Rezko spotted him early, figured he might be a rising star, and helped secure funds for his initial campaigns. Rezko's role raises questions because no one has ever accused him of being a civic-minded fellow who simply enjoys political fundraising because he delights in good government. Skeptical souls want to know what Rezko sought in return for his support and whether he got it.

If Rezko is convicted--a real possibility--those inquiring minds might find out, or at least they would find out what Rezko has to say. If Rezko is staring at a long prison sentence, prosecutors will have a big carrot to dangle in front of him, but only if he names the biggest players.

Where does Obama figure in all this, aside from being a recipient of Rezko's campaign cash? No one knows for sure, but suspicion centers on one particular real estate deal. Obama claims it was a clean, arms-length deal with the sellers, and no one has produced any evidence to the contrary. If there were problems, though, Rezko would know about them.

The real-estate deal began when a Chicago couple (two doctors) took jobs elsewhere and put their property - a lovely, spacious home in Kenwood with a vacant yard -- on the market. The Obamas liked the house but lacked the money to buy both the house and vacant yard.

What happened next is where the questions arise. Obama recently acknowledged that he toured the property with Rezko. After that, Obama made a discounted offer for the house, and, at about the same time, Rezko made a full-price offer for the side yard. Both offers were accepted. So, the obvious question is: Was there any hidden link between Rezko's full price deal and the discounted price Obama paid?

Obama's final stump also lies in Kenwood, where he was friendly with the 1960s radicals, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. Ayers and Dohrn, now married, were members of the Weather Underground, a group that killed police and tried to bomb the US Capitol. Ayers and Dohrn spent a decade on the run before turning themselves in and spending time in jail. Both are now professors and prominent figures in Chicago's leftist-progressive politics.

In his memoirs, Ayers speaks evocatively of his revolutionary days and reiterated his political commitments in an interview with the New York Times: "I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough." The interview appeared with exquisitely bad timing--on September 11, 2001.

Obama served with Ayers on the board of a small, leftist foundation, the Woods Fund. Ayers later chaired the board and is still a member. Obama served from 1999 until 2002 and received several thousand dollars annually as compensation. According to the 2001 annual report, the fund made a $6000 discretionary grant to Rev. Wright's Trinity United Church "in recognition of Barack Obama's contribution of services to the Woods Fund as a director." Serving with Obama and Ayers was the prominent Palestinian activist, Rashid Khalidi, then a historian at the University of Chicago and now the Edward Said Professor at Columbia. (While they were all on the board, the Woods Fund gave a generous grant to the Arab American Action Network, headed by Khalidi's wife, Mona.)

Now that Obama is so close to the Democratic nomination, the scrutiny he faces on issues like these has grown intense. It will stay that way--for him, for Hillary Clinton, and for John McCain--as long as they keep running. The stakes couldn't be higher, and voters want to know.

There are more questions than answers right now. But the questions are serious ones about character, judgment, and close personal associations. If the answers turn out to be damaging, this won't be a Swift Boat. This will be a whole fleet.

Charles Lipson is a professor of international politics at the University of Chicago. He has two books coming out next month: Succeeding as an International Student in the United States and Canada, and Doing Honest Work in College, 2nd edition. Both are from the University of Chicago Press.

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