By Steve Holland
|The remaining members of Presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s VP search committee, Eric Holder (l) and Caroline Kennedy (r).|
CHICAGO (Reuters) – The chief of Democrat Barack Obama’s search for a vice presidential running mate stepped down from that role on Wednesday over questions about loans he received from a company involved in the U.S. housing crisis.
The Illinois senator said in a statement that Jim Johnson had decided to quit the unpaid position in order to avoid distracting from the process of gathering information about possible vice presidential candidates.
Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination last week and will face Republican John McCain in the November election.
“Jim did not want to distract in any way from the very important task of gathering information about my vice presidential nominee, so he has made a decision to step aside that I accept,” Obama said.
Obama appointed Johnson last week to a three-member team heading his search for a No. 2. Other members of the team include Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John Kennedy, and former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.
“We have a very good selection process under way, and I am confident that it will produce a number of highly qualified candidates for me to choose from in the weeks ahead,” Obama said.
Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin told MSNBC that it was Johnson’s decision to step down and was the right move.
The Wall Street Journal had reported Johnson, former head of the mortgage giant Fannie Mae, received private loans at below-market rates from Countrywide after he left Fannie Mae.
Countrywide has been accused of helping fuel the subprime mortgage crisis with risky loans.
The campaign of Republican presidential candidate John McCain had heaped criticism on Johnson in response to weeks of attacks from Democrats over McCain’s ties to lobbyists.
Obama had given Johnson a vote of confidence on Tuesday, dismissing Republican criticism of him. Johnson had performed the same role for Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004.
“I am not vetting my VP search committee for their mortgages. There is a game that can be played — everybody who is tangentially related to my campaign is going to have a whole host of relationships,” Obama had told reporters on Tuesday.
Johnson stepped down even as Obama was criticizing credit card companies for what he called predatory lending practices.
On a two-week tour focusing on problems in the U.S. economy, Obama held a round-table discussion with three people who have seen their credit card debt skyrocket due to a relentless cycle of interest rate increases and fees.
Obama said “John McCain has been part of the problem,” accusing the presumptive Republican nominee of siding with banking industry lobbyists on credit issues and voting against an effort to increase transparency on credit card bills.
“When he had the chance to help families avoid falling into debt, John McCain sided with the credit card companies,” Obama said of the Arizona senator.
McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds fired back.
“On the same day Barack Obama is staring down headlines about the head of his VP selection committee’s inappropriate ties to a predatory lender, Obama launches blind political attacks against John McCain for voting for the bipartisan Senate Bankruptcy Bill that was actually supported by 18 Democrats,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by David Wiessler)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters “Tales from the Trail: 2008” online at http://blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)