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Illinois Dems offer little for Obama to brag about
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff

Antoin "Tony" Rezko


Sen. Barack Obama


Emil Jones


Governor Rod Blagojevich


Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan


Todd Stroger


Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, D-Evanston, left, talks with Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, at the state Capitol building in Springfield.


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Published: 8/24/2008 12:01 AM | Updated: 8/24/2008 1:02 AM

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When Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president from the steps of the Old State Capitol, he described Springfield as the crucible where he learned the art of politics and bridging division.

"It was here in Springfield where I saw all that is America converge," he told a crowd of thousands that frigid February day in 2007. "It was here where we learned to disagree without being disagreeable. That it is possible to compromise so long as you know those principles that can never be compromised. And that so long as we are willing to listen to each other we can assume the best in people instead of the worst."

One has to wonder today what Springfield Obama was talking about.

Given complete control of state government, Illinois Democrats have produced unbalanced budgets, callous funding cuts, and antagonistic gridlock.

Yet the Democratic leader Obama describes as his political mentor believed state lawmakers deserved a pay raise for their work.

And the Democratic governor whose administration is under criminal investigation is quick to remind anyone listening of Obama's ties to those in trouble.

Plus, the Democrat who Obama backed for Cook County Board president produced the nation's highest sales tax.

Sheesh, it seems like enough to make Obama bid aloha to his adopted Land of Lincoln and start calling himself a Hawaiian Democrat. In the midst of Obama's shining moment in Denver this week, the Illinois Democratic Party could be a political blemish.

"I would guess they're going to try to keep Illinois out of the spotlight and if Illinois is in the spotlight, it will be a challenge for them to show the unity and hope that the national campaign is trying to emphasize," said John S. Jackson, political scientist and author who's written about presidential races, Obama's career and Illinois politics.

Some Illinois Democrats seem to recognize this. Gov. Rod Blagojevich was recently asked if he had any official role in this weeklong coronation of Obama.

"I've got a big speaking role," Blagojevich said. "I think it's something like four o'clock in the morning in the men's room of the convention center speaking to a handful of voters. I'm hopeful I can persuade them and we can carry Colorado.

The line might be funnier if Blagojevich hadn't used it four years earlier.

But there's little humor among the state's Democrats these days.

"They kill jobs. They kill education funding, they try to take away health care from people," the governor recently said of the Democrats in the Illinois House.

And in a recent memo, Illinois House Speaker and Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan criticized labor heads for buying into "the (expletive deleted) of the Blagojevich people."

Heading into this Democratic celebration, Illinois Democrats are downplaying their differences and painting the picture of a party united behind Obama, who was back in Springfield Saturday to appear with is running mate, Joe Biden.

"At this moment, everyone's on the same page," said Steve Brown, Madigan's spokesman, noting that Democrats moved up the Illinois primary to increase the visibility of Illinois and Obama's campaign.

The Chicago Democrat's presidential campaign offered this comment when asked whether it was concerned about the Illinois dysfunction becoming a political problem.

"Voters know that in Illinois and in Washington, Barack Obama stood up to members of both parties to pass sweeping ethics reforms that reduced the influence of money and special interests over the legislative process," said Illinois spokesman Justin DeJong.

Still, while the Illinois delegation will be front-and-center when Obama takes the stage later this week, don't look for him to tout any great accomplishments from back home. The ethics legislation he championed has been deemed insufficient. The new, tougher version lawmakers sent to the governor has - in a truly Illinois move - become a bargaining chip in a battle over billions worth of government spending.

Obama's campaign promises to bring national health care. But Illinois' venture into expanded health care has produced turmoil at every turn. Obama's idea of taxing employers who don't provide benefits to pay for health care is one that was rejected here.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Republican Party is trying to capitalize on this Democratic dysfunction, saying Democrats have failed at their chance to run the state. Don't be surprised if the McCain campaign doesn't also begin using this as ammunition.

"The campaign is aware of what's going on in Illinois," said Western Springs Republican state Rep. Jim Durkin, co-chair of McCain's Illinois effort. "I think it's fair game and I think the Republicans nationally should pounce on it."

With friends like these...

Here's a look at some of the key figures in Illinois politics and why Barack Obama might not want them in the spotlight.

Todd Stroger: Already facing claims of nepotism and cronyism regarding his ascension to Cook County Board president, Stroger then pushed a sales tax hike that makes the county's the highest in the country. Obama backed Stroger for the post.

Emil Jones Jr.: Obama's political mentor is an old-school Chicago Democrat who steered state money to favored institutions and got family on state payroll. Amidst recent Illinois financial gridlock, Jones wanted higher pay for lawmakers.

Michael Madigan: After Obama's pick for state treasurer - Alexi Giannoulias - beat Madigan's in 2006, the Illinois House speaker and Democratic Party chairman contemptuously called Obama "the Messiah." They've since buried the hatchet. Accused of thwarting the governor's agenda to advance his daughter, the state's attorney general.

Rod Blagojevich: During a recent spat with reporters, the Illinois governor repeatedly brought up Obama's name when asked about the conviction of Blagojevich's political fundraiser and adviser Tony Rezko. Blagojevich's administration is under federal investigation for its hiring and contracting practices.

Tony Rezko: Convicted this year for a multimillion-dollar state pension kickback scheme he orchestrated trading on his clout with the governor. Also had been a longtime pal of Obama who most recently helped the Obamas buy their Hyde Park mansion in 2005.