In the race for president, Sen. Barack Obama labels himself as an agent for change, saying he's been a reformer for years. But some in his political hometown of Chicago are saying "not so fast."
While Obama grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, his political birthplace is Chicago - a city known for its machine politics and Illinois - a state known nationally for government corruption.
Political experts say Obama has not been able to bring about fundamental reform in Illinois. In fact, he's allied with some of the state's most notorious politicos.
A recent McCain TV ad shows Obama saying "in terms of my toughness, look, first of all I come from Chicago." The ad goes on to make the point that Obama has formed powerful connections with some of Chicago's most corrupt politicians. It's a story the local media has followed for years.
"The McCain strategy is a wise one," said Chicago Sun-Times reporter Chris Fusco.
Fusco investigates state and city government for the Sun-Times. He and other members of the Illinois media say the national press is missing an important story--that corruption still exists in Illinois and Chicago politics--and Obama refuses to directly challenge it.
"Right now, what Sen. Obama appears to be doing from a political analyst standpoint is he's playing the safe card," Fusco said. "You know Mayor Daley's a popular figure in Chicago, despite his corruption troubles."
Illinois' long-term corruption issues have spawned a veritable watch-dog industry, including the Better Government Association. When it comes to corruption, BGA Executive Director Jay Stewart says, "we have a severe problem here."
Chicago's Political Machine
Stewart says Chicago's political machine, run by Mayor Richard Daley, is the state's engine of corruption. For years the city's media has chronicled how city workers are told to get out the vote to keep their jobs and how city contractors must make campaign donations to keep their contracts.
"If you go over to the federal courthouse building the last five or six years," Stewart began, "you'll see a steady flow of state and local elected officials, government employees, contractors--all going to jail for public corruption, trying to rip the public off in one scheme or another."
Obama himself even told the Sun-Times in 2005 that city hall corruption investigations gave him "huge pause" about supporting the mayor. But in 2007, he endorsed Daley's re-election bid. Weeks later, Daley backed Obama for president.
"The mayor's powerful. If you anger him you're going to suffer the repurcussions," Stewart said. "So I think a lot of politicians take a pass on it and Senator Obama has never been that kind of politician to take on Chicago corruption."
Political Family Tree
Besides Daley, Obama's political family tree includes Tony Rezko. Rezko was the senator's personal friend, fundraiser and now--a convicted felon. Rezko also helped Obama buy his home.
"Real estate transactions are perfectly legal. The problem with that one is at the time Obama buys the real estate from Rezko it's well-known that Tony Rezko is heading toward a federal indictment," Stewart explained.
Obama has admitted his relationship with Rezko showed bad judgment. But he calls Illinois Senate President Emil Jones his political godfather. Jones is widely viewed as a Machine insider.
Cook County Board President Todd Stroger also belongs on the family tree.
In 2006, Obama refused to endorse the reform candidate Forrest Claypool in the primary for Cook County Board president. He then endorsed Stroger, the son of a well-known Machine politician, in the general election.
"That was an opportunity where Sen. Obama really could have wielded some of his growing political influence and helped Claypool out in a race against an entrenched Machine incumbent," Fusco said.
Today, the Chicago Machine lives on in the presidential campaign. Long-time Daley strategist David Axelrod is now Obama's chief strategist.
The Obama campaign turned down a CBN News interview request for this story. But the campaign's response statement to the McCain ad points out Obama's ethics reform legislation during his state senate days.
Republican state Senator Kirk Dillard sponsored the bill and worked with Obama.
"His contribution as a constitutional lawyer was very helpful," he said. "I give the man credit. I was the lead sponsor. He was a co-sponsor."
Critics call the legislation small potatoes. But watchdog groups note it was the first reform bill in Illinois in 30 years.
Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, explained "before that law you could call a legislator out of the chambers and hand him an envelope of cash and that was okay."
When it comes to good government legislation in Illinois - Canary, Stewart and others say Obama can take credit. But new laws alone don't clean up corruption, or make a reformer.
"Did new laws get enacted and did Sen. Obama play a role in enacting those laws? The answer is yes," Stewart began. "Do we still have horrible, horrible, horrible corruption in Illinois? The answer is yes."
Today, Dillard gives Obama a "C+" as a reformer.
"He was once probably in the good solid 'B" category, but when you have Tony Rezko, a convicted felon, as your next-door neighbor, you passed on having a real reformer elected as your home town Cook County Board chairman, and the fact that you're not a part of it or product of it but you've embraced the Chicago Machine - I don't know how you can get much higher than a 'C+' or 'B-,'" Dillard said.
That grade may be understood in Illinois, but not in much of the country, which is still getting to know Obama and his home state.