When an out-of-state video crew showed up last winter in La Junta, Colo., an old railroad town, crew members told Mayor Don Rizzuto they were making a documentary on the impact of factory closings on rural America.
That seemed believable, Mr. Rizzuto said, since La Junta, population 7,600, had recently lost 153 jobs with the shuttering of a pickle processing plant.
But Mr. Rizzuto was surprised to learn that when the video appeared on the Internet this year, it had a very different focus. It blamed Senator Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, who was on the board of the company that closed the pickle plant, for the job losses.
The video is one of several posted on a Web site, ObamaTruth.org, and circulated on YouTube, where they have received a combined 50,000 viewings. There is nothing on ObamaTruth.org that identifies anyone involved in it. But the site is registered to a veteran political operative from Chicago who works for J. Patrick Rooney, an Indiana insurance magnate known for bankrolling racially charged advertisements attacking Democrats.
For Mr. Rizzuto, a Democrat who appears in the video but never talks about the Obamas, the experience offered a discomforting glimpse into a netherworld of negative politicking that is all too familiar to presidential campaigns but remains almost unheard of in rural communities like his own.
“They didn’t tell me they were trying to trash Obama,” he said. “In fact, they never even mentioned Obama. It just never came up.”
Harsh attacks on candidates from sources with murky motivations and support are nothing new in American politics, particularly in presidential campaigns, where the stakes are high and the interested parties are often well heeled and ideologically driven. In the current presidential contest, the ObamaTruth.org project is one of the more sophisticated assaults on a candidate, with downloadable videos titled “The Audacity of Barack Obama” and periodic press releases announcing updates. The Obama campaign declined to comment.
The operative behind it is Joe Novak, 54, a consultant whose colorful history in Illinois politics earned him the nickname Low Blow Joe. A Chicago Sun-Times columnist once wrote that if dirty tricks were an art form, “Novak would be Renoir.”
Although he has been a consultant for many politicians over the years, including Walter F. Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, and Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, Mr. Novak said in an interview that lately he had been working almost exclusively for Mr. Rooney. His projects, he said, involve exposing inequities in health care that result in poor people’s being denied medical treatment or gouged by insurers and hospitals, topics of interest to Mr. Rooney, who champions medical savings accounts as an alternative to conventional health insurance.
Mr. Novak maintains a blog, WhereTheMoneyGoes.com, that examines the spending practices of nonprofit hospitals, and some of his disclosures have been picked up by newspapers around the country. He said it was after he learned that Mrs. Obama was earning more than $300,000 as a vice president of the University of Chicago Hospitals, a frequent subject of his writings, that he decided to take a closer look at the Obamas and to set up ObamaTruth.org.
The Obama site, Mr. Novak said, was not part of his work for Mr. Rooney, whom he said was aware of it and “is interested in it.” He said he used his own money to create the Obama videos and maintain the Web site, but he acknowledged that because Mr. Rooney was his principal source of income, one could infer that the two were related.
“Do I get paid generously by Pat Rooney? Yes,” Mr. Novak said. “To the extent that I use my own money, together with what my wife earns, then indirectly I guess you could make that argument. I would disagree with it.”
Efforts to reach Mr. Rooney, 79, were unsuccessful.
Since he retired 10 years ago as chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Company, Mr. Rooney has emerged as a major financial backer of two pro-Republican groups, America’s PAC and the Council for Better Government, which ran advertisements intended to discourage members of minorities from voting for Democrats.
Typical of these were radio spots in the 2006 Congressional elections linking Democratic candidates to the white supremacist David Duke and accusing Democrats of supporting abortions for blacks. Another advertisement featured a dialogue between two men, one of whom said he opposed abortion, even “if you make a little mistake with one of your hos.”
“Maybe you do have a reason to vote Republican,” the other man responds.
In the 2004 presidential campaign, Mr. Rooney gave financing to a group, People of Color United, for radio advertisements attacking Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, for calling herself an African-American. Ms. Heinz Kerry, who is white, was born and raised in Mozambique. Mr. Rooney, who is white, told The Washington Post at the time that he supported the group, “because the genuine word from the black community should be heard, not white folks saying it for them.”
The ObamaTruth Web site combines factual details about the Obamas’ personal finances and political activities, with strident characterizations of them.
“In his lust for personal wealth, has Barack Obama sold his moral compass?” says an entry on the site, which refers to Mrs. Obama as Pickles and accuses her of “helping ruin the lives of 150 people.” It goes on to examine her income as a director of TreeHouse Foods of Westchester, Ill., a company she joined in June 2005, five months before it announced it would close the plant in La Junta. She resigned from the company in May.
Mr. Novak vigorously defended the contents and tone of ObamaTruth.org, saying it exposes what he called hypocritical stances by Mr. Obama on issues like health care and poverty. He also said that the mayor of La Junta should not have been surprised that the video focused on Mrs. Obama, because Mr. Rizzuto had linked her to La Junta’s troubles in an interview for Crain’s Chicago Business last December. Mr. Rizzuto was quoted in that article as saying, “If she and her husband are the champion of the little guy, it’s amazing what they’re doing.”
Mr. Rizzuto said that the Crain’s reporter brought up the Obamas’ connection to TreeHouse Foods and that the point he was trying to make was that he wished a company’s directors “would get out of the board room and come out here and have a look for themselves” before making a decision that affected so many people.
“But I don’t know how you paint it as Obama’s fault,” he said. “Looking back on it now, I think that’s all this guy shooting the video wanted to do.”