Tony Rezko remains an icon in the American Arab community and it was no surprise that more than 250 people including friends, family and government officials would come together in Chicago recently to celebrate his release from Federal custody recently in Chicago. In addressing the gathering at the Al Hambra Palace on May 12, 2016, Rezko said he has no regrets but maintained his innocence of charges
By Ray Hanania
Tony Rezko remains an icon in the American Arab community and it was no surprise that more than 250 people including friends, family and government officials would come together in Chicago recently to celebrate his release from Federal custody recently in Chicago. In addressing the gathering at the Al Hambra Palace on May 12, 2016, Rezko said he has no regrets but maintained his innocence of charges.
Released only one week earlier, Rezko served 8.5 years in federal custody allegedly for illegally raising money for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who remains in a federal prison serving out a 14 year prison sentence.
In addressing the crowd at the posh Al Hambra Palace Restaurant just west of the Chicago Loop, Rezko told supporters that he was tried and convicted of a crime he did not commit.
“Even though I was indicted, tried and convicted of a crime I did not commit, I am very blessed. I am fortunate to have the friends I have. I am blessed to be born as a Rezko. I am fortunate and blessed to have Danny, Adam and Chenelle call me father. And I am indeed fortunate to share my life with Rita, my wife,” Rezko said naming members of his family who attended and also spoke at the event.
“Rita stepped up like a champ for the last 10 years and dealt with all that adversity with strength, courage and determination and grace. Rita, you will always be my champ.”
Although it was Rezko’s relations with former Governor Rod Blagojevich that were the foundation for the charges, Rezko really became the target of Federal prosecutors mainly because of his long and close friendship with President Barack Obama.
Rezko was instrumental in helping Obama enter politics and much of the push to attack Rezko was driven by intensely one-sided partisan, anti-Obama political extremism, and anti-Arab racism.
Rezko’s son Danny introduced the speakers that included his father’s former business associates Mike Rumman, Fernado Grillo and Chris Beerman. But the most emotional remarks that brought many in the crowd to tears came from his niece, Sarah Rezko, and from his daughter Chanelle Rezko who described the difficulties of growing up surrounded by the controversy and without her father during the past decade.
“I was 12 years old when my dad was taken away from our home one morning while I was getting ready for school,” Chanelle Rezko recalled.
“Living through that experience is something I would never wish upon anyone, especially a young girl. That morning was the first time in my life when I truly understood the meaning of strength. Everyone has to go through challenges that they do not ask for. I just had to go through mine early. And even though our situation was brutal, I knew that God was testing our strength and that it was in our journey to inevitably overcome it.”
Rezko built a successful business renovating abandoned buildings that many in Chicago did not want. He turned them into icons of hope in very rough communities on Chicago’s South Side. At one point, Rezko became one of the most successful real estate developers in Chicagoland. During his career he gave employment to thousands of people, and a lot of pride to the American Arab community.
Rezko’s family are immigrants who came to America from Syria. And Rezko was always proud of his American Arab heritage and helping his community get their share of society’s respect.
When Harold Washington decided to run for mayor of Chicago, Tony Rezko was at his side. Not asking for anything for himself, but insisting that Mayor Washington give back to American Arabs, because Arabs are Americans, too. Washington responded by creating the Arab Advisory Commission. In 2011, during his first week in office, Mayor Rahm Emanuel gutted the Arab Advisory Commission and has since kept American Arabs at arms-length, working only with non-Arab Muslims.
Rezko helped American Arabs actively engage in American politics, which is the lifeblood of this country.
Rezko was close with many celebrities, including for more than 40 years with Muhammad Ali, who was a role model for every American Arab who grew up in this country in the 1960s and 1970s. Ali sent a message that he was unable to attend because of health but applauded Rezko’s release.
Rezko also helped John Stroger become president of the Cook County Board. When Richard Phelan decided not to run for re-election, Stroger, the head of the Finance Committee and a really good government public servant, should have been immediately named as Phelan’s successor. But he was African American. There was resistance. And it was wrong. Rezko headed his campaign and Stroger was successfully elected.
Rezko also saw a unique sparkle and talent in another young man, Barack Obama, when Obama first came to Chicago. Rezko was instrumental in steering his political career, and Obama was elected to the Illinois Senate. Obama was a brilliant talent, but no one really knew his name back then.
Rezko was there when Obama ran for the U.S. Senate and won. And, when no one believed Obama could become the president of the United States, Rezko was there urging him to run.
Much of Rezko’s story has not been told, but his daughter and sons offered some insight when they revealed to the audience that as their father battled the charges, Rezko was locked up in a cell for four years and denied access both to fresh air and daylight.
Chanelle Rezko shared parts of a letter her father had given her on her 17th birthday in 2011 in which he urged his daughter to use the family challenges to be stronger.
“Chanelle, stay true to yourself. Keep up the good work and keep learning from the difficulties life brings you as you are growing,” Rezko wrote in the letter.
“Take what comes your way; mold it and shape it to suit you. Let it make you stronger, not weaker, self-assured, not lost, wiser but not naive, careful but not careless, full of love and not hatred. When you were a little girl you once asked me what happiness is. Well, happiness is to be satisfied and grateful for what you have, for the love you receive, for the care and the guidance you get for who you are & what you are, and to be at peace with your self. That is was happiness is to me.”
Adam Rezko said his father “deserved a statue, not a sentence.”
“My father is a genius. The way he handled his wrongful conviction should be analyzed by everyone. He was in solitary confinement for 9 months. Which is torture. He not only kept it together, he actually became smarter and even more loving. I think people should know that my dad did a lot of good for society,” Adam Rezko said.
“My dad was mentored by Muhammad Ali and touched the lives of so many people directly and indirectly. He genuinely cares about others and the idea of harming people or breaking the law are on the opposite end of his life’s spectrum.”
In his letter to his daughter, Rezko wrote he would not wallow in “self-pity” nor complain that he had been “wronged.”
“Chanelle, I always count my blessings and consider my self very luck regardless of our situation, life has been good to me,” Rezko wrote.
“The more I remind myself of all the good things life has dealt me, I remind myself that I am indeed a very lucky and fortunate man who will one day be free.”
Chanelle read the letter and her comments brought the crowd to a standing ovation for her family and for Tony Rezko.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and columnist. He was also a speaker at the Rezko celebration event. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)