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Obama opens White House to Chicago's top 1%

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Politics,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets

Chicago's richest residents, surveyed in a new study about how the wealthy influence politics, regularly contacted top Obama White House aides and federal officials for favors for themselves and clients, including banks and land developers, according to a new report.

A groundbreaking survey of Chicago's top 1 percent, those worth an average of $14 million and who earned over $1 million annually, said that of those who had talked to administration and federal officials, 44 percent "acknowledged a focus on fairly narrow economic self interest." The rest were pushing for action on broader matters "touching on the common good."

The survey by scholars from Chicago's Northwestern University and Nashville's Vanderbilt University used Chicago's richest as their sample group to make their point that the wealthy hold an over-weighted influence in Washington. But in 45-minute interviews with 83 Windy City millionaires, they also revealed how influential Chicago's richest are when targeting Chicagoan Obama's team and Capitol Hill.

What they found in the survey provided to Secrets Thursday was startling: half of Chicago's rich had contacted a federal official in the past six months, and 47 percent had contacted a congressional office.

"Contacts with executive department officials, White House officials, and officials at regulatory agencies, though less frequent, were also common," the scholars reported.

Many are on a first-name basis with top Obama aides. "Most of our respondents supplied the title or position of the federal government official with whom they had their most important recent contact. Several offered the officials' names, occasionally indicating that they were on a first-name basis with 'Rahm' (Emanuel, then President Obama's chief of staff) or 'David' (Axelrod, his chief political counsel)," said the report titled "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans." Emanuel is now Chicago's mayor and Axelrod a White House advisor.

The survey also revealed what those contacting federal and White House officials were after. "Just under half, 44 percent, acknowledged a focus on fairly narrow economic self interest: 'to try to get the Treasury to honor their commitment to extend TARP funds to a particular bank in Chicago'; 'to better understand the new regulations of the Dodd-Frank Act and how it will affect my business [banking/ finance]'; 'Fish and Wildlife ... permitting on development land'; 'on behalf of clients, seeking regulatory approvals'; 'I own stock in several banks. I was concerned about legislation he was drafting that I think could be harmful for the banks.'"

And the number of contacts could have been higher. "Given possible sensitivities about such contacts it is possible that their frequency was underreported, yet the number revealed to us was quite substantial," said the survey.

The survey, which concluded that the rich steer Washington's focus away from popular spending programs and instead to deficit reduction and program cuts, found that 99 percent of the Chicago sample voted in 2008, most talked politics at least five days a week, and two-thirds were campaign contributors, averaging $4,633 a year.

"We report the results of a pilot study of the political views and activities of the top 1% or so of U.S. wealth-holders," wrote authors Benjamin Page and Jason Seawright of Northwestern, and Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt. " We find that they are extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs. Variation within this wealthy group suggests that the top 1/10th of 1% of wealth-holders (people with $40 million or more in net worth) may tend to hold still more conservative views that are even more distinct from those of the general public. We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of U.S. citizens wants the government to do. If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory."