A gift from Dems in IL: Obama’s Senate seat

On Tuesday, Illinois played host to a low-turnout primary that, by custom, should have been held in late March. (It had been moved to the first Tuesday in February to give Obama a boost in the ’08 primary here and the General Assembly never bothered to push it back.) Predictably — hey, it’s February in Chicago — there was enough snow falling to give people an excuse not to vote. Just as predictably, the early primary helped the candidate with the best name recognition, Alexi Giannoulias, the state’s 33-year-old treasurer. It hurt his opponent, David Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor and Chicago inspector general who entered the race late and was making his first run for public office. Hoffman was closing the gap, but he could not close it fast enough.

So the nominee is Giannoulias, who comes equipped with a spotty record — under his watch, parents who put money into a college savings account lost as much as half of it — and ties to a family bank currently in meltdown and in the headlines. Last week government regulators ordered Broadway Bank, founded by Giannoulias’s father, now run by his brother, to accept federal oversight, to raise millions in capital and to stop making payments to family members without federal approval. When Giannoulias was the bank’s chief loan officer, loans were made to organized-crime figures and to a name familiar to most Illinoisans, Tony Rezko — a political fixer, now in prison, of almost comic-book sleaziness.

As I monitored election returns, I saw on a local political website a photo of Illinois’s impeached governor and Rezko buddy Rod Blagojevich with his arm around Giannoulias, both smiling and tuxedo-clad. Any upstanding person looking at the duo would have run for the nearest exit.

Next June, five months before the midterm elections, Blagojevich goes on trial for attempting to sell the Senate seat for which Giannoulias and Kirk will be battling. The name Rezko will be a staple of the proceedings and of what are sure to be shocking headlines. The trial will be covered by every reporter with a pulse — local, state, national, international.

That trial was one of many reasons why Obama, who had his own damaging tie to Rezko, did not want Giannoulias to run; why Obama and his aides tried to discourage Giannoulias, who happens to be a basketball buddy of Obama’s, from running. Obama surely would have much preferred a win in the primary by the squeaky-clean Hoffman, probably the smartest man to run for statewide office since Obama.

Kirk could have gone after Hoffman for inexperience, but he could not have gone after him for shady connections or corruption. In Giannoulias, Kirk has been given a gift that will keep on giving, every day from today until the all-important midterms next November.