Obama's lobbyist problem: David Axelrod

The strange contest over lobbying takes a swing to the Left today, as Newsweek details the biggest lobbying connection in the campaign. After spending most of the month trying to paint John McCain as having a lobbyist problem, Barack Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod may have been hoist by his own petard. His consulting firm turns out to do lobbying as well, and in some shady ways:

When Illinois utility Commonwealth Edison wanted state lawmakers to back a hefty rate hike two years ago, it took a creative lobbying approach, concocting a new outfit that seemed devoted to the public interest: Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity, or CORE. CORE ran TV ads warning of a “California-style energy crisis” if the rate increase wasn’t approved—but without disclosing the commercials were funded by Commonwealth Edison. The ad campaign provoked a brief uproar when its ties to the utility, which is owned by Exelon Corp., became known. “It’s corporate money trying to hoodwink the public,” the state’s Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said. What got scant notice then—but may soon get more scrutiny—is that CORE was the brainchild of ASK Public Strategies, a consulting firm whose senior partner is David Axelrod, now chief strategist for Barack Obama.

If that seems a little dishonest, then check out what ASK proposed on behalf of Illinois hospitals:

But the activities of ASK (located in the same office as Axelrod’s political firm) illustrate the difficulties in defining exactly who a lobbyist is. In 2004, Cablevision hired ASK to set up a group similar to CORE to block a new stadium for the New York Jets in Manhattan. Unlike Illinois, New York disclosure laws do cover such work, and ASK’s $1.1 million fee was listed as the “largest lobbying contract” of the year in the annual report of the state’s lobbying commission. ASK last year proposed a similar “political campaign style approach” to help Illinois hospitals block a state proposal that would have forced them to provide more medical care to the indigent. One part of its plan: create a “grassroots” group of medical experts “capable of contacting policymakers to advocate for our position,” according to a copy of the proposal. (ASK didn’t get the contract.)

Obama has run on health-care issues to create universal health-insurance coverage to do exactly the opposite of what ASK proposed. Axelrod’s firm wanted to set up another phony front group to oppose that same policy, attempting to fake the public into thinking that the “grassroots” effort had nothing to do with the hospitals themselves. Axelrod’s firm had so much success with their front group for the energy company that they planned to duplicate the same dishonest structure in health care — and in both cases, on behalf of opponents of Obama’s professed policies today.

Axelrod says he isn’t a lobbyist because he doesn’t do business in DC, but Exelon certainly does, as Newsweek points out. Exelon execs have pumped almost a quarter-million dollars into Obama’s campaign, too. The state of New York considers ASK a lobbying firm, too. More importantly, the business ethics of his firm call into serious question Obama’s pledge of “New Politics”. Is he serious, or is this merely another Axelrod public-relations Trojan Horse?

I wrote earlier that all of the brouhaha over lobbyists is overblown and ridiculous. Lobbyists exist to represent citizens before Congress, an exercise explicitly protected by the First Amendment. However, Obama’s campaign decided to make this an overarching theme, and now they can live with the consequences. Will Obama fire Axelrod, or will he admit that he has been a hypocrite for questioning McCain for his connection to lobbyists — lobbyists who didn’t resort to creating fraudulent front groups for their clients?