Spreading a message of reform still takes money

Times Staff Writer

After presidential hopeful Barack Obama made a show of standing up to Washington insiders by returning donations from lobbyists, he received help raising campaign money from at least two of them.

The incongruity illustrates the line that Obama has attempted to walk as he raised a record $58.5 million in the first half of 2007: He needs money to fund his campaign messages, one of which is that he is a different type of politician determined to reform Washington.

Underscoring that point, the Illinois Democrat began airing television commercials this week in the early-voting state of Iowa decrying the Washington culture and proclaiming that he accepts no money from federal lobbyists or political action committees.

In his campaign finance statements, Obama has disclosed that he has returned more than $52,000 given to him by Washington lobbyists, though there is no law against taking money from them.


Even as he shuns donations from lobbyists, Obama has taken more than $1.4 million this year from law and consultancy firms that have partners who are registered to lobby, a Times analysis of Obama’s fundraising shows. He has received hundreds of thousands more from corporate executives while turning down money from their lobbyists.

“This may be an imperfect ban, but it is an important symbol of the kind of administration that Obama will have in Washington,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement.

Two federal lobbyists who have had their donations returned are John C. Corrigan and Sanford Stein: $4,600 to Corrigan and $2,000 to Stein.

Corrigan, based in Chicago, has known Obama since Corrigan worked in the Illinois state Senate, where Obama served for seven years before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. In his lobby business, Corrigan represents U.S. Cellular, a telecommunications company, and Aurora, Ill., a city seeking federal money to expand its airport.


Stein is a lawyer also based in Chicago, and lobbies for a children’s advocacy group that has sought federal money. Not including the $2,000 that he returned to Stein, Obama has taken $15,000 from Stein’s firm, Drinker Biddle.

Drinker has a significant lobby presence in Washington, where it represents drug makers, healthcare providers and casino interests.

Although Obama gave back their contributions, the candidate benefited when the lobbyists sent separate e-mails in May and June urging that donors attend fundraisers June 8 in Chicago. Corrigan also sent e-mails asking people to volunteer for Obama’s campaign.

“Just a quick reminder about the following volunteer opportunities with Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and our kickoff meeting on June 20,” a Corrigan e-mail said. “The campaign has asked that we try and get a head count on folks who will be attending. Therefore, please RSVP to this e-mail or give me a call.”

Stein’s e-mail said: “Many of my friends have asked how they can meet Barack Obama. Here is the opportunity!” It provided a flier naming various prominent Chicago figures hosting the event. Donors were asked to give $1,000 or raise as much as $25,000.

Although it is difficult to determine the amount of money Obama raised June 8 -- he held three fundraisers that day -- the campaign reported receiving $190,000 from Illinois donors between June 6 and June 11.

Obama spokesman Burton said the campaign did not ask Corrigan or Stein for help, and “told them not to when we found out they were.”

Corrigan said in an e-mail that he did not realize his donation “would in any way compromise Sen. Obama’s fundraising principles,” adding that he would continue to support the candidate of his choosing.


Stein said he was unaware that the campaign didn’t want his money until it was returned. “I’ve since learned that they do not want my help in even raising money, and so I won’t be doing that either.”

On the campaign trail, Obama invokes his reformist theme. He distributes placards in Iowa declaring: “Not paid for by PAC or federal lobbyist money.” In the new television ad in Iowa, the narrator says:

“Barack Obama challenged both parties to pass tough new ethics rules and rein in the power of lobbyists, and he is leading by example, refusing donations from PACS and Washington lobbyists who have too much power today.”

The ad ends with Obama’s statement: “They think they own this government, but we’re here today to take it back.”

Obama uses the theme to differentiate himself from other candidates, suggesting that he represents change. But critics, among them at least one other Democratic candidate, Mike Gravel, have attacked Obama over his policy.

“It really, truly, is rank hypocrisy,” Gravel, a former U.S. senator from Alaska, said in an interview Friday. The inconsistencies suggest “he is not telling the truth, and that is very serious,” Gravel added.

Political experts say most Democratic voters are more interested in which candidate can win the White House in 2008 than where they raise their campaign money.

And Obama’s policy has its risks.


“There is always the risk if you set yourself up as being better than others,” University of Iowa political scientist David P. Redlawsk said. “If there is evidence that you’re not really walking the talk, the fall can be harder.”