Obama Land Deal Clouds Senator's Image

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Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) admits he made a mistake when he purchased land from an indicted political fundraiser. Obama made the purchase to enlarge the yard around his south-side Chicago mansion. The deal has cast a shadow across Obama's public image.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A rising star of the Democratic Party is facing his own land issues. Senator Barack Obama is considering a run for president in 2008. At the same time, he's being criticized back home in Illinois for getting involved in a real estate deal with an indicted Democratic Party fundraiser.

From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: I'm standing in front of what has got to be considered the dream house for U.S. Senator Barack Obama and his family. It's a gorgeous three-storey red brick Georgian revival-style mansion. It's nearly a century old and it sits on a tree-lined street in a South Side neighborhood that is just full of other historic mansions.

Obama bought the house for $1.65 million in June of 2005, using a large chunk of advance he got for his best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope. But it's not the purchase of the house that's raising eyebrows in and around Chicago. It's the purchase of an adjacent lot on the very same day by Tony Rezko, a local real-estate developer and long-time fundraiser for Illinois Democrats.

After living in a house for only half a year, the Obama's bought a 10-foot wide strip from Rezko to add to their yard.

Mr. JAY STEWART (Executive Director, Better Government Association): Everybody in the know knew Tony Rezko at the very least was the subject of an immense amount of curiosity for the U.S. attorney.

SCHAPER: Jay Stewart is with the Chicago-based Better Government Association. He says Rezko has worked hard to position himself close to many Illinois politicians. A federal grand jury indicted Rezko last month on charges that he tried to use his clout in the administration of Governor Rob Blagojevich to shakedown investment firms wanting state business. The indictment alleges Rezko sought millions in kickbacks and campaign contributions. Stewart says Obama shouldn't have been associating with Rezko at all.

Mr. STEWART: A lot of people sit there and wonder why would someone like Senator Obama, who's normally so careful, display such poor judgment?

SCHAPER: Senator Obama admits he made a mistake.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I think it created an appearance that he was potentially doing me a favor. And that's something that, you know, I've always tried to stay very far away from that line, which is why I don't even let lobbyists buy me lunch.

SCHAPER: In an interview with Chicago Public Radio on election night, Obama said he was too focused on making sure his transactions met every legal and ethical requirement. And he says he didn't pay enough attention to how it would look.

Sen. OBAMA: For me to I think not have seen this and anticipated this is something I regret.

SCHAPER: Stewart, whose group warded Barack Obama its Civic Achievement Award earlier this fall, doesn't doubt Obama acted legally. But he says someone of Obama's stature who presents himself as a new breed of politician more hopeful and full of integrity will be held to a higher standard.

Mr. STEWART: When you're Barack Obama, you know, it's kind of like you have to be like Caesar's wife. You have to be purer than pure.

SCHAPER: And that's leading some of Obama's former colleagues in the Illinois Legislature to voice concerns that the junior senator's star has risen too high, too quickly.

In the hallway of the old state capitol in Springfield, Chicago Democratic State Representative Mary Flowers says Obama needs to pace himself.

Ms. MARY FLOWERS (Representative, Chicago): Sometimes when you run too far too fast, you can slip and trip. Hopefully, that won't happen.

SCHAPER: Along with some Illinois pundits and some of Barack Obama's constituents, Flowers thinks Obama might be better off leveraging his rock star persona toward greater legislative accomplishments on issues like poverty, education and justice. That, they suggest, might make him an even better candidate if and when he runs for president.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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