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Was Blagojevich’s coziness with Arab Americans the straw that broke the camel’s back?
By Ray Hanania — Rod Blagojevich is an Illinois governor whose notoriety has gone national for all the wrong reasons. He is the butte of many jokes on the national late night TV circuit, which is usually a barometer for the personalities and issues that Americans across the country are talking about. Gov. Blagojevich was elected twice by the voters of Illinois and when he first entered politics, an unknown name, he had the backing of many, mainly because his father-in-law was a powerful Chicago Machine politician and alderman. He went from unknown legislator to unknown congressman to popular governor who took over in the wake of a corruption predecessor, Gov. George Ryan.
Everyone was on Blagojevich’s side when he first ran, including most of the politicians who are now calling for his head in an unprecedented “trial” where one man’s evidence is another man’s rumor. The man leading the charge once was his closest political ally.
So what went wrong?
Part of it has to do with Illinois where the term “Culture of Corruption” should be the state’s motto on its license plates, vehicle stickers and all of its government buildings. Illinois is not the most corrupt state in the country, ranking 6th from the worst, but that’s about all that many can say about it proudly.
Blagojevich is the son of immigrants from Serbia. And if there is one thing he understood, it is the bigotry and bias and hatred that exists in America against those who stand too closely to their ethnic heritage. You’re either an “Amer-kan” or you’re not.
That’s one reason why the governor was so quick to cozy up to the Arab American community in Illinois, a community of more than 450,000 in the Chicagoland area, mostly Palestinian and Democratic, and another 125,000 in Central Illinois, mostly Lebanese and Republican. Although both of his predecessors, the corrupt and now jailed Ryan, and former Gov. Jim Edgar pandered to the Arab American community for their votes, doing little if anything to help them.
But Blagojevich went further, appointing them to high public commissions, giving them high paying jobs, routinely attending their dinners and banquets and giving them access in a state where the Arab-Israeli politics is issue number 3 behind jobs and education.
There are some in Illinois who didn’t like Blagojevich’s friendships with Arabs.
Although we know today that at the heart of the Blagijevich scandal, detailed in charges filed by the US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, are two Arab American political connectors, Palestinian American Ali Ata and Syrian American Antoin “Tony” Rezko. Ata was the former and longtime president of the Chicago Chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and a key figure in the Arab American community’s business activism. Rezko was a popular builder and food retailer whose businesses were mainly through Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Both Rezko and Ata have been convicted of corruption. Rezko is in jail and Ata’s name still swirls around the lambasting that Blagojevich takes. According to the Feds, Ata gave Blagojevich a $25,000 campaign contribution in exchange for a high paying state job to be Finance Chairman, a job that way overshadowed his engineering and candy store retail business experience.
But dig deeper and you find that Blagojevich had opened up Illinois politics, for the first time in a real way, to many Arab Americans. And in Chicago politics, that is a non-no. Because if you have clout in Chicago, you can start asking the big questions like, “How come the hate crimes commissions never convict people for anti-Arab hatred?” But they always seem to scream when other ethnic and religious groups have problems?
How come other ethnic newspapers and media, for example, get state and city funding for their projects, but Arab American media do not? How come other ethnic businesses get huge contracts that help to make them a success, but Arab American businesses do not?
How come … how come? Until Blagojevich, we all knew the answer. Fear. Despite their friendship with some Arab businessmen, Daley, Ryan and Edgar all stayed away from helping them “too much.” They’d hand out certificates and official photographs, but nothing more of substance.
Many in today’s Illinois House and Senate remember how close Blagojevich was to the Arab American community. And they feared that giving them too much power might tip the balance in the pro-Israel machine that is part and parcel of Chicago politics and Chicago’s anti-Arab mainstream news media.
Many argue that what Blagojevich did in giving jobs in exchange for campaign donations from supporters is done all the time. It is. The term “culture of corruption” is not to be taken lightly in Illinois. It is “pay to play” everyday in the aisles of the Chicago City Council and the Illinois Legislature. It’s just that the Grey Wolves of Chicago politics are more skilled at manipulating the deals to make them look “okay.”
But add that Middle Eastern aspect and suddenly a politician who makes the same deals, same promises and commits the same crimes as his other colleagues is a national disgrace. That might explain why the Illinois Legislature this week can’t wait until the Federal Government “convicts” Blagojevich in an open courtroom, maybe more than a year away. In the halls of justice, people like Blagojevich are innocent until proven guilty.
But in a political system with a corrupted culture and dominated by bias and hatred, they don’t need no justice to throw Blagojevich out. All they need is a good publicity smear campaign, throw in a few Arab sounding names and some questionable conduct, and they can take a governor and remove him from his elected perch.
Who’s going to stand up and complain? The Arabs in the state?
They can barely confront the hate themselves.
(Ray Hanania is a longtime Chicago political reporter who covered Chicago City Hall 16 years. He hosts a morning Chicago radio show on WJJG 1530 AM Monday through Friday and can be reached at www.RadioChicagoland.com.)
This post has already been read 366 times!
Ray Hanania is an award winning political columnist and author. He covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).
Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and for TheArabDailyNews.com, and TheDailyHookah.com.
Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media;In 2009, he received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. Hanania has also received two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and in 1990 was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.
His wife and son are Jewish and he performs standup comedy lampooning Arab-Jewish relations, advocating for peace based on non-violence, mutual recognition and Two-States.
His Facebook Page is Facebook.com/rghanania
Email him at: RGHanania@gmail.com
Visit this link to read Ray's column archive at the ArabNews,com ArabNews.com/taxonomy/term/10906
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