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Obama follows fine line to stay clear of lobbyists

Co-host of a Broward event has state clients.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 16, 2007

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., speaks during the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO Presidential Forum.
[AP photo]

In recent days, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has made his distaste for Washington lobbyists - and their money - a central part of his campaign, seeking to cast himself as a different kind of politician.

On Wednesday, Obama issued a fresh condemnation of the influence of lobbyists. But just the day before, his campaign announced a fundraiser in Broward County that will be co-hosted by a prominent South Florida lobbyist.

On Aug. 25, Russ Klenet and his wife, Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter, will host a $500-per-person breakfast at Cafe Bella Sera in Parkland. Klenet is a registered lobbyist in Tallahassee with a stable of clients that has included everyone from South Florida municipalities to Election Systems & Software, whose much criticized touch screen voting machines have drawn the ire of Democratic activists nationwide.

The Florida fundraiser comes to light in the midst of an ongoing tussle between Obama and his chief Democratic rival, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The front-running Clinton takes lobbyists' money - more than any other presidential candidate - but Obama has insisted he won't.

Although Obama has been careful to focus his attacks on Washington lobbyists, he has spoken broadly about the dangers of influence peddling. When Clinton defended lobbyists as paid advocates for real people and real interests, Obama shot back: "I profoundly disagree with her statements."

A fine distinction?

The Obama campaign distinguishes between those registered to lobby the federal government and those registered to lobby state governments, saying that as president Obama would have no jurisdiction over matters debated in Tallahassee.

Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki pointed to his history as an advocate for ethics reform as a legislator in Illinois, as well as in Washington. She said Obama has proposed the most aggressive ethics policy of any candidate in the race.

"The important point," Psaki said, "is what kind of a leader Sen. Obama would be in the White House."

Kirk Wagar, Obama's Florida finance chairman, said the Illinois senator has sacrificed millions in campaign contributions by steering clear of Washington lobbyists' money. But he said Obama's complaint with lobbyists is more about their outsize influence than the work they do.

"He believes that everyone deserves to have a seat at the table," Wagar said, "but lobbyists try to buy all the chairs around the table."

Klenet and Ritter are named on the invitation as event chairmen, but Klenet insisted his wife is the real draw. "We decided we'd be happy to welcome him to Broward County and that's it," he said. "I'm not making phone calls. I'm not raising money."

Klenet, a former legislative aide to now-state Sen. Steve Geller of Hallandale Beach, is a longtime lobbyist with a client list that includes numerous cities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, as well as the Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers, and Tampa Electric Co.

Earlier this year he contributed $1,000 to the Clinton campaign.

Donations returned

Obama already has returned more than $50,000 in donations from federal lobbyists, and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows he has accepted $55,019 more from employees at lobbying firms, but not lobbyists themselves.

The same group shows that Clinton has raised $406,000 from lobbyists, more than any other candidate.

The self-imposed ban is new for Obama. Since running for U.S. Senate in 2003, he accepted nearly $128,000 from lobbyists and $1.3-million from political action committees.

As his campaign gains momentum, it has also drawn more scrutiny. Last week, the Boston Globe noted that Obama has maintained ties with lobbying firms to help him raise some of the $58.9-million he has raised this year.

"If you're running a campaign about credibility, that credibility and persona are so important you better be squeaky clean," American University political scientist Richard Semiatin told the Globe. "While he's getting good traction out of this, I think in the long term he's really got to be careful."

Political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 16, 2007, 00:50:24]

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