The White House faced fresh questions over back-room dealmaking after acknowledging that one of President Barack Obama’s top advisers encouraged a Colorado Democrat to apply for an international development job instead of challenging the candidate whom the president favored in a Senate race.
The aide “wanted to determine if it was possible to avoid a costly battle between two supporters,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement Thursday.
But once the aide learned former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff was determined to run against incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet, Gibbs said, “There was no offer of a job.”
Speaking to reporters in Colorado on Thursday, Romanoff said “at no point was I promised a job.”
The situation again called into question repeated promises by Obama to run an open government that is above secret political horse-trading. In appealing to voters this election year, Republicans charge that Obama’s promise to change the ways of Washington has given way to the kind of politics he campaigned against.
Just last Friday, the White House acknowledged under pressure that it had turned to former President Bill Clinton last year to approach Pennsylvania Senate candidate Joe Sestak about backing out of a Democratic primary in favor of an unpaid position on a federal advisory board.
“Rather than running a federal government facing a devastating economic crisis, two wars, and now perhaps the worst environmental disaster in history, the White House chief of staff and his deputy are acting like Chicago party bosses,” said Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele in a statement. “Who is running the store?”
Romanoff on Wednesday night released a copy of an e-mail in which White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina described three federal international development jobs that might be available to him if he were not challenging Bennet for the Democratic Senate nomination.
“He added that he could not guarantee my appointment to any of these positions,” Romanoff said in a statement. “At no time was I promised a job, nor did I request Mr. Messina’s assistance in obtaining one.”
Romanoff said Thursday: “I rejected the overture … the same day.” He said he had remained quiet about his dealings with administration officials because, “I did not want and do not want to politicize this matter.”
Gibbs said Romanoff had applied for a position at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the transition period before Obama took office in January 2009.
Gibbs said Messina “called and e-mailed Romanoff last September to see if he was still interested in a position at USAID, or if, as had been reported, he was running for the U.S. Senate. Months earlier, the president had endorsed Sen. Michael Bennet for the Colorado seat, and Messina wanted to determine if it was possible to avoid a costly battle between two supporters.
“But Romanoff said that he was committed to the Senate race and no longer interested in working for the administration, and that ended the discussion,” Gibbs said.
Sestak also declined his offer, and he defeated Sen. Arlen Specter late last month after disclosing the job discussions his supporters said was proof of his antiestablishment credentials. He said last week he had rejected Clinton’s feeler in less than a minute.
The revelations about the administration’s political dealings come at the start of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s trial on charges of scheming to profit from his ability to fill Obama’s old Senate seat. Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to 24 counts including racketeering, wire fraud, attempted extortion and bribery. He has denied scheming to sell or trade the Senate seat for personal gains.
Obama’s top aides – chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett – were subpoenaed to testify about their role in picking Obama’s replacement during private phone calls; no one from Obama’s administration has been charged with wrongdoing.
Early on his presidency, Obama tapped a potential 2012 rival, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, for the U.S. ambassadorship to China. Huntsman was nominated in May 2009 and confirmed last August.
In a two-page report on the Sestak case, the White House counsel said the administration did nothing illegal or unethical. Republicans weren’t appeased.
“Just how deep does the Obama White House’s effort to invoke Chicago-style politics for the purpose of manipulating elections really go?” Rep. Darrell Issa asked on Wednesday. Issa is seeking internal White House documents about its political operations in specific races.
Unlike Sestak, Romanoff had ducked questions on the subject before issuing his statement Wednesday night.
Also unlike Sestak, Romanoff was out of office and looking for his next act after being forced from his job because of term limits.
Romanoff had sought appointment to the Senate seat that eventually went to Bennet. Romanoff also applied to be Colorado secretary of state, a job that came open when Republican Mike Coffman was elected to Congress. Gov. Bill Ritter appointed a replacement and again passed over Romanoff.
Next, according to several Colorado Democrats speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal negotiations, Romanoff also approached Ritter about being his running mate in a re-election bid. It was only after that attempt failed, the Colorado Democrats said, that Romanoff joined the Senate contest.
Romanoff still wasn’t settled on the Senate race. When Ritter announced in January that he wouldn’t seek a second term after all, Romanoff publicly talked about leaving the Senate race to seek the governor’s office, though he ended up staying in the Senate contest.
Bennet has outpaced Romanoff in fundraising and support from Washington, although party activists attending the state party assembly last month favored the challenger by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent. The primary is Aug. 10.
Bennet was appointed by Ritter to fill out the final two years of the term of Ken Salazar, who resigned to become interior secretary.
- Associated Press