The Fall of the House of Blagojevich

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mark Carlson / AP

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich leaves his home through a back alley the day after he was arrested on federal corruption charges

Wednesday was Rod Blagojevich's 52nd birthday, but you can bet it was not a happy one. After having been charged by federal authorities with trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat that President-elect Barack Obama vacated, the Illinois governor spent most of the day hidden from view inside the state office building in downtown Chicago. The few allies he had left have vanished. And anyone who might have been among the unnamed Senate candidates in the detailed charges against Blagojevich have been busy putting distance between the governor and themselves. Among those were Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who has hired a lawyer to accompany him to a meeting with federal prosecutors on Friday. (See TIME's top 10 scandals of 2008.)

But it is Blagojevich who continues to be the target of public outrage. Talk-radio hosts in the state fielded calls from citizens who wondered how the governor could attempt anything so brazen amid what were clearly ongoing federal investigations into some of his activities. "It's as if it didn't register [with Blagojevich]," says Jay Stewart, executive director of the Illinois Better Government Association, in Chicago. "Even by our crass, low standards in Illinois, it's stunning." Most polls had the governor's approval rating in the low two digits, from 16% to about 25%, but a recent survey had Blago (as the Illinois public has grown to call him, unflatteringly) at an incredible subbasement-level 4%.

Six years ago, Blagojevich, the son of a Serbian-born steelworker, seemed to have an almost inspiring résumé. He worked as a dishwasher to pay for college. After graduating from Pepperdine University's law school, he eventually found work as a prosecutor in Cook County, which includes Chicago, frequently handling domestic-abuse cases. He married well; his wife Patti, the daughter of influential Chicago alderman Richard Mell, used her father's political smarts to help Blagojevich win elections — first to Illinois' General Assembly in 1992 then, four years later, to the U. S. House, as the Representative from the Fifth District of Illinois, which includes parts of Chicago's North Side.

Then in 2002, Blagojevich ran for the governorship, casting himself as a populist, tax-cutting antidote to Illinois' long tradition of corrupt politics. Indeed, the previous governor, George Ryan, had been fighting that reputation and in 2003 was charged with and later convicted of corruption. Blagojevich had a striking public image to go with his reformist politics. Short and fit, with a shock of dark brown feathered hair, he wore sharply cut suits that some of his admirers said looked pulled out of GQ. He also had his father-in-law's help with strategy, and he became the first Democrat elected governor of Illinois since the 1970s. He also had a bit of luck. His Republican opponent's last name was also Ryan (though Jim Ryan is not related to the disgraced former governor), which helped tar the GOP candidate with the outgoing governor's problems. Even so, Blagojevich won with a relatively narrow 52% of the vote.

In 2006, Blagojevich won re-election by investing heavily in television advertising that again linked his Republican opponent to George Ryan's sins. But by then, Blagojevich's reputation as a clean-government reformer was already sullied. Even the haircut and GQ suits were looking out of date.

As a governor, he showed some serious political shortcomings. Officials who worked with him say Blagojevich could appear disengaged and never truly expert in any of the policy discussions in which he participated. Jim Duffett, executive director of Illinois' Campaign for Better Health Care, contends that Blagojevich's attempts at health-care reform failed largely because of his prickly, grandstanding personality, which alienated lawmakers and would-be allies. If anything got passed, says Duffett, legislators "knew the governor would get credit for it." There was also the misguided audacity of his political tactics. He tried to fund his health-care plan, for example, in a budget that included one of the largest proposed tax increases in Illinois history. He lost that battle in humiliating fashion, garnering not a single vote in the state house of representatives. His attempts to privatize Illinois' downtown office property failed miserably as well.

Blagojevich also alienated his powerful father-in-law. Mell had been given a lot of the credit for helping Blagojevich win the governor's office, so much so that a local publication called Mell the "governor-in-law." But petty arguments mushroomed into a major falling out, including Blagojevich's shutting down a landfill owned by a Mell relative who allegedly boasted he had clout with the governor. Blagojevich then publicly belittled his father-in-law, saying "This is the kind of thing that I think, frankly, separates the men from the boys in leadership. Do you have the testicular virility to make a decision like that, knowing what's coming your way? I say I do."

According to news reports, Blagojevich said of Mell, "There's a method of operation by people like him, and they've been doing politics for years, and they like to leverage and probe and threaten and bluster and bully until they get their way." Political observers say there was a brief attempt at reconciliation between the two men after the death of Mell's wife. But the feud resumed. As the scandal broke this week, Mell barely mentioned his son-in-law as he publicly comforted and defended his daughter.

But the governor's feuds went beyond family. He fought with almost everyone, like the mayor of Chicago (who has called him "cuckoo"), the state's attorney general, the speaker of the Illinois house — all fellow Democrats. For months, Republicans have been talking about impeaching Blagojevich. He has earned the opprobrium of preachers by snubbing a meeting with them, apparently because of their political links with another of his enemies, the Rev. James Meeks, a state senator with ambitions for the governorship. In a February 2008 article in Chicago magazine, reporter David Bernstein wrote, "Nearly everyone I spoke to agrees that Blagojevich is facing a career-threatening political crisis."

At the time, the scandal that appeared most likely to bring him down involved one of his fundraisers, Antoin (Tony) Rezko, who faced charges of trying to extort money from companies dealing with the Illinois state government under Blagojevich. It was a case that threatened to pull in President-elect Obama as well, though Blagojevich, who denied any involvement in Rezko's schemes, appeared to be in more immediate peril. In the end, Rezko was convicted on federal fraud and bribery charges without direct fallout for Blagojevich. Yet the governor faced several other probes, according to Chicago, involving hefty contributions to his wife from political fundraisers and money given even to his 7-year old daughter.

Now the scandal that appears likely to end his career has come. Arriving at court on Tuesday, Blagojevich entered from a side door, wearing a Nike blue and black running suit and keeping his head low after a quick sweeping look at the crowded gallery. His appearance was rather haggard, his normally brushed bangs a bit unkempt — a striking contrast with his co-defendant, chief of staff John Harris, 46, who was dressed tidily in a suit and tie.

After Tuesday's court proceedings, Blagojevich returned to his modest brown house on Chicago's North Side. For much of his tenure as governor, he has spent more time in Chicago than in Springfield, the state capital. Blagojevich has thus far refused to resign, and he still holds the power to fill Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat. But it's doubtful any credible candidate would accept a nomination that came from his hand. To try to circumvent the scandal, there is some talk of the lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, appointing Obama's successor.

Despite the calls for his resignation — from Obama, among others — and a move in the state legislature to start impeachment proceedings, observers don't expect a quick resolution to the scandal. "These calls for Blagojevich to resign, they're very sensible, but you can't force someone to do so," says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who now heads the political-science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Impeachment hearings would take a long time — months — and the call for a special election needs his signature, which the legislature would then have to override his veto. It's not a quick process." And given his pugnacious history, the governor could fight until the bitter end.

— With reporting by Eric Ferkenhoff / Chicago