Monday, September 22, 2008
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz
In politics, just like in real life, there come times when a mayor or a president or a candidate can't avoid revealing his or her true self.
Go one way and we voters will know we're dealing with a person of integrity. Go another and we'll discover, well, the opposite.
Which leads to a few political folks who have made lots of news lately. Each faces a moment of truth.
The first are Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and Donna Dunnings, his chief financial officer.
For days, the boys on LaSalle Street have been buzzing that the county duo is preparing to dump Fitch Ratings, one of the three big firms that gauge municipal and corporate debt for bond buyers. Fitch lately has been much more critical of county finances than Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's, and the county has a legal right to employ (or unemploy) any rating firm it wants.
The buzz really warmed up when Ms. Dunnings introduced paperwork for a pending $740-million bond issue that includes Moody's and S&P in the definition section but excludes Fitch. Ms. Dunnings and her bond counsel, Patricia Curtner at Chapman & Cutler LLP, say there are technical reasons for the omission and that, in fact, no decision has been made on which firm(s) will be retained.
I'll take them at their word — though, in today's crazy market, it would be really goofy not to have as many raters as possible.
Let me just add this: One reason Wall Street is in crisis is that the raters often didn't do their job, winking at weak deals. If Fitch is fired for doing its job, it will reveal much about the real priorities of the Stroger administration.
A second moment of truth involves Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. By finally calling his longtime mentor, Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, last week and asking him to get out of the way of a pending ethics bill, Mr. Obama reclaimed a chunk of the reform high road he was in danger of losing.
It took a while, but Mr. Jones decided to heed his protégé. Perhaps he was thinking of that nice job as, say, ambassador to Jamaica that a President Obama could bestow.
Other senators are likely to fall in line, too. But, for the record, of those running to succeed Mr. Jones as Senate president next year, only John Cullerton, Don Harmon, Rickey Hendon, Terry Link and Jeff Schoenberg were in favor of fast action on the ethics bill before the Obama call. In favor of the big, legally risky stall were Donne Trotter and, reportedly, James Clayborne Jr., who didn't return phone calls. Voters ought to remember.
A third moment of truth involves GOP presidential nominee John McCain.
Whatever you think of Sarah Palin — I think she makes a killer moose burger, but others credit her with wider talents — it has become obvious that GOP operatives in Alaska are working to delay or kill a probe into whether she misused her power to try to punish her sister's ex-husband, a state trooper. Five GOP legislators have filed suit against the probe, Mr. Palin is refusing to testify and the state attorney general — a Palin appointee — has questioned its objectivity.
I'm not close enough to the matter to know who's telling the truth. But it does appear the probe was authorized and widely backed by leaders of both major parties in Alaska, with little yowling until after Ms. Palin was nominated.
That means that, like it or not, the probe ought to be allowed to finish by the scheduled early October date, with everyone free then to critique the results. Delaying or killing it will only leave Ms. Palin under a huge cloud when she faces voters.
Mr. McCain will get credit here if he publicly asks his nominal friends and allies to back off for now. He'll deserve something else if he lets others continue their dirty work.