WASHINGTON --Barack Obama, who portrays himself on the campaign trail as a crusading reformer -- underscoring the theme in a speech Monday in Green Bay -- rarely used his considerable bully pulpit to clean up Springfield, Chicago's scandalized City Hall or inept Cook County government.
Obama's Chicago ties are the subject of a new John McCain spot unveiled Monday, asserting, incorrectly, that Obama was "born of the corrupt Chicago political machine."
The ad centers on William Daley, the mayor's brother and former commerce secretary; convicted political fixer Tony Rezko, and Illinois state Senate President Emil Jones and Gov. Blagojevich, who have their own ethics problems.
Daley -- a national Obama campaign co-chair -- should have been left off this list. McCain "voted for me to be commerce secretary," Daley noted when we talked. ''I am part of the Evil Empire? It's not the John McCain that people respected for so many years in Washington."
McCain's latest spot comes as the rivals are trying to destroy each other through guilt by associations.
Obama wrongly hit McCain in an ad for having lobbyists on his staff -- they are former lobbyists -- while McCain slammed Obama for originally picking Jim Johnson, the former CEO of Fannie Mae, to head his vice presidential vetting team.
The failures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- the quasi public mortgage giants -- helped trigger the economic crisis that threatens the financial security of millions of Americans, so any connections with these institutions is potential political poison these days.
McCain's spot calls Daley a lobbyist; he is not.
Chicago's politics are tribal, so there are often interesting connections. Daley is a former Fannie Mae board member. Daley's son, William Daley Jr., is a former lobbyist for Fannie Mae. Daley Jr. is now with Morgan Stanley, and he is registered with Cook County and the State of Illinois as a lobbyist for the firm.
Obama was not spawned by a Chicago "machine" ward organization. His Hyde Park-Kenwood community is one of the few "independent" outposts in the city. In his early political career, as a state senator, Obama steered clear of local entanglements. He ran and lost a U.S. House race without Mayor Daley's backing.
The remnants of the Daley machine -- a confederation of political families -- the best known named Madigan, Lipinski and Hynes -- did not back Obama in his U.S. Senate Democratic primary bid, though he did have as his top consultant David Axelrod, Mayor Daley's key adviser.
As a U.S. senator, Obama rarely used his popularity to force change in the local culture of corruption.
The clearest case of Obama being chicken was in 2006, when Forrest Claypool was running for Cook County Board President against John Stroger, the Mayor Daley-backed incumbent then in a coma from a stroke. Claypool -- who works for Axelrod and is on the Obama presidential campaign -- was the blue ribbon reform candidate and an Obama friend, but Obama did nothing significant to help and Claypool lost.
As for Rezko, Obama has admitted as "boneheaded" his dealings with him in regard to his home purchase; that relationship is the subject of many Sun-Times stories by my colleagues.
Last week, after prodding from the Sun-Times, Obama called Jones, his political godfather, and steered him away from letting ethics legislation die in the Illinois Senate.
Obama, contrary to the McCain ad, has never been close to the much-investigated Blaogjevich.
In Green Bay, Wis., Obama said he spent his career "taking on lobbyists and their money, and I've won."
However, when it comes to reform, Obama has been very selective in picking his fights, focusing on ethics legislation. He may well reform Washington if president. Back home, there's lots still to be done.