From Chicago Tribune on February 1, 2008 vie noquarterusa.net: "Maytag workers whose jobs were shipped to Mexico serve as consistent characters in Barack Obama's stump speech. He employs their stories in railing against corporations that use trade pacts to replace well-paid union workers with low-cost foreign ones.
It is a ready applause line for the Illinois presidential hopeful, one that he has been reciting almost verbatim since he was a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2004, when appliance giant Maytag was in the process of shutting a refrigerator plant here, putting 1,600 people out of work.
But the union that represented most of those Galesburg workers isn't impressed with Obama's advocacy and has endorsed his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Its leaders say they wish he had done more about their members' plight.
What rankles some is what Obama did not do even as he expressed solidarity four years ago with workers mounting a desperate fight to save their jobs.
Obama had a special connection to Maytag: Lester Crown, one of the company's directors and biggest investors whose family, records show, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for Obama's campaigns since 2003. But Crown says Obama never raised the fate of the Galesburg plant with him, and the billionaire industrialist insists any jawboning would have been futile.
Aide: Didn't know of tie
Obama's chief political strategist, David Axelrod, said late Thursday that the senator did not know Crown sat on Maytag's board until the Tribune noted it last September in a story about the closing of the Maytag headquarters in Newton, Iowa.
As Illinois readies for its part in next week's Super Tuesday primaries, the high-profile treatment given the Maytag situation by the state's homegrown candidate is a reminder of the often awkward intersection of populist rhetoric, complex issues and the financial realities of presidential campaigning.
Obama's rhetoric on Maytag has been unswerving and underscored by the closure of other U.S. appliance plants by Whirlpool Corp., which bought Maytag in 2006.
In his victory speech after Saturday's South Carolina primary, Obama spoke yet again of "the Maytag worker who is now competing with his own teenager for a $7-an-hour job at Wal-Mart because the factory he gave his life to shut its doors."
Beyond such talk, there is little evidence that Obama went to any lengths to fight the Galesburg shutdown. Some analysts say his ties to the Crowns -- Lester's son, James, is the Illinois finance chairman of Obama's presidential run -- leave him open to criticism.
Charles Lewis, founder of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, said in the era of big money politics there's often a disconnect between the passionate words of a politician and the financial interests of the wealthy benefactors who help bankroll their campaigns.
"It is hypocritical," said Lewis. "Democrats are often in a tricky position because they are close to labor and talk about the homeless and poor, but they need money and have to turn to the captains of industry to get it."
The Obama campaign said the Maytag workers union never asked him to intervene with Crown and that he would have done so if they had. Union officials said they were unaware of the Crowns' ties to Maytag or to Obama.
Obama leveled critiques
In his campaign, Obama has not shied from condemning rivals for straying from their own populist images.
Locked in an increasingly personal war of words with Clinton, Obama has attacked her for long-ago service on the board of Wal-Mart, which has frosty relations with organized labor. Before John Edwards dropped out of the race this week, Obama hit him for financial ties to a hedge fund with investments in Whirlpool. The Obama critique stressed Whirlpool's role in closing U.S. factories, including Maytag's longtime headquarters in Newton, Iowa.
Crown family members are major Democratic Party donors. Some have given to Clinton's campaigns for the U.S. Senate in New York. But in the presidential run, their money is behind Obama, campaign records show. The Crowns and employees of their family-run holding company have given at least $195,000 to Obama's U.S. Senate and presidential campaigns.
Lester Crown made his first contribution to Obama, $2,100, last February and hosted a fundraiser for him last fall. But Crown's wife has pumped $16,100 into Obama' coffers, beginning with a $12,000 gift to his U.S. Senate campaign in 2003.
The economic viability of Maytag's Galesburg operation is still in dispute.
Maytag management announced plans in 2002 to shutter the Galesburg factory. In an interview, Crown said the plant hadn't been competitive for years and that Maytag gave two years' notice of the shutdown to minimize the pain. "Barack can say whatever he wants, but this was not an example of corporate indifference. That's absolutely inaccurate," Crown said, though he stressed that his support for Obama is still unwavering.
In a statement issued late Thursday, the Obama campaign defended his record on standing up for American workers against special interests. "Because of Obama's history of working with Democrats and Republicans to get things done, our campaign has generated the support of voters and contributors with a wide range of policy beliefs," the statement read.
Most of the Galesburg workers were members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, whose national president has complained loudly this campaign season that Obama's support for Maytag workers was more show than substance.
Obama first took up the Maytag workers' cause in mid-2004 as they mounted a futile effort to save the Galesburg plant. Obama met with the workers and rallied with them there to fight the closing, but did not broach the subject with Crown. "I have never had a conversation with State Sen. Obama or U.S. Sen. Obama regarding the Maytag Corporation," Crown told the Tribune.
Maytag shut the Galesburg plant after Labor Day 2004. A year later, when the company announced its sale to Whirlpool, the combined Maytag stakes of Crown and an investment group including his children and relatives were worth around $150 million.
'He was new' in '04
Supporters of Obama note that he was still serving in the Illinois Senate in 2004 and was only a candidate for the U.S. Senate with no power beyond the bully pulpit to fight the closing. Since his election, he has backed legislation to combat the overseas export of American jobs. In May 2006, Obama wrote to the secretary of labor asking for assistance for displaced Maytag workers.
There still is little awareness of Obama's ties to the Crowns in Galesburg, a blue-collar town of 37,000 in western Illinois, and much admiration toward him. "I like Obama," said Mary Ann Armstrong, who lost her job inspecting refrigerator parts for defects when the plant closed. "He was new back then and probably did all he could do."