Mr. Inside Out

Tony Rezko climbed from immigrant roots to the highest circles in Illinois. In his first interview since his indictment on corruption charges, he’s defiant—and faithful to a governor who now shuns him.

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Tony Rezko was raised in Aleppo, the second-largest city in Syria. His father, a Catholic in a Muslim nation, was a community leader. “The Syrian TV carried only one channel and that was the government broadcasting channel, so there was little knowledge about the outside world,” Rezko recalls. “But I always had curiosity about visiting the USA.” Encouraged by a high-school teacher, he enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “The reason why I came to Chicago versus New York, Boston, or other cities was that the teacher recommended IIT,” he says.

Armed with an undergraduate and a master’s degree in civil engineering from IIT, Rezko practiced as a civil engineer for several years; indeed, he once worked for the State of Illinois on road-widening projects. But he quickly grew wealthy in the fast-food business and real estate. “I don’t know what took me into fast foods,” he says, “but I opened the first Subway franchise in Chicago.” In time, his corporations held more than 100 Panda Express and Papa John’s Pizza franchises in the Midwest.

When Harold Washington was running for mayor of Chicago in 1983, Rezko held a fundraiser after Jabir Herbert Muhammad, who was Muhammad Ali’s business manager, urged him to get involved in the campaign. Subsequently, Rezko also joined Ali’s entourage, traveling the world with him for five years. Rezko apparently took little interest in boxing—he says he and Ali did watch a few matches together—but he relished putting together business and endorsement deals for the champ. “My role model in life is my father and Muhammad Ali,” Rezko says.

Rezko ran Jabir Muhammad’s firm, Crucial Concessions. Under Mayor Washington, Crucial won the concessions to sell food at city beaches. Rezko also directed the Muhammad Ali Foundation, formed to promote Islam around the world. But Rezko was ecumenical in his associations. Daniel Mahru’s Automatic Ice sold ice to Crucial, and by 1989 Rezko and Mahru, who is Jewish, had founded Rezmar Corporation, a major development company.

Rezko was bipartisan in politics as well. He financially supported Republican governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan before backing Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, in 2002.

“Practicing politics was not an option, a choice, in Syria,” Rezko says. “I found myself in Chicago. The more I got to know the system, the more I got to know the Constitution. . . . We have the best constitution in the world. There’s no perfect society, no ideal country, anywhere. But I think that the chance or practice of being involved in politics helps people with vision." 

“Practicing politics was not an option, a choice, in Syria,” Rezko says. “I found myself in Chicago. The more I got to know the system, the more I got to know the Constitution…. We have the best constitution in the world.”

Asked how he became a friend of and fundraiser for such a variety of political figures, he says, “I met with people who were running for office, some elected, some not. I always worked with people I developed chemistry with. People I liked, they liked me, so we developed a relationship.”

Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association of Chicago, a watchdog group, has another view of Rezko’s rise. “Historically, we are a city where you come here and make it big,” Stewart says. “In business and politics and government, you can establish yourself very quickly. There are two ways you can move up. One, join the organization and play the loyal foot soldier. Two, if you have money, it happens more quickly. Money brings you access [to people in power]. Likely that is how [Rezko] got as far as he did.”

Daniel Mahru was Rezko’s partner in Rezmar for 16 years until the two men had, according to Mahru, “a difference of opinion” in 2005. He says they developed more than $600 million in properties, not counting a billion-dollar deal for 62 acres in the South Loop that has been stalled for years. By Mahru’s account, Rezko initially showed little interest in the trappings of power. “Back in the eighties, Tony had an opportunity to go to the White House with Muhammad Ali,” Mahru says. (The occasion was a dinner during the December 1987 summit of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader; Ali had been invited as a guest.) “I commented to Tony, ‘Wow, that is something I would love to do, see history in the making!’ He said, ‘Dan, that doesn’t make me any money. I’m not interested.’

“That changed. I think everything went to his head. After the late nineties he was more interested in being around powerful people. He went to a Christmas party at the Bush White House.” Rezko cochaired a major fundraiser for President Bush’s campaign in 2003.

Rezko declined to comment about Mahru, likening their breakup to a divorce. “You would hear my story; you would hear his story. I wish him no harm.”

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