Mr. Un-Popularity

From our February 2008 issue: Rod Blagojevich was something of a golden boy when he became the governor of Illinois—a young, charismatic champion of change with powerful backers and presidential aspirations. Now he may be the most unpopular governor in the country. A look at how things fell so completely apart

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From our November 2003 issue: When things were going well for Rod Blagojevich

The past year has been especially bleak. In January 2007, the freshly reelected governor began the legislative session gung ho to flex his political muscle. Right after election day he demanded that lawmakers pass a budget that included his multibillion-dollar universal health care plan, proposing to pay for it by levying a gross receipts tax on businesses—the largest tax increase in state history—and by selling off the state lottery and borrowing more from pension funds. Blagojevich didn’t get a single vote for the tax proposal in the Illinois House, which rejected it 107 to 0.

When Blagojevich tried but failed to persuade Mike Jacobs, the Democratic state senator, to support a face-saving vote on his health care plan, Jacobs says the governor “blew up like a ten-year-old” and threatened to ruin his political career. “I told him, ‘I’m your friend, but I can’t support you on this one.’ He stood up and said, ‘We’re never going to be friends. I will do everything in my power to make sure you don’t return to this building’"—meaning the statehouse. Jacobs told reporters at the time, “If this governor would have been in East Moline, Illinois, at one of my local taverns, I would’ve kicked his tail end.”

Throughout the record-length legislative session, the governor—who was all but AWOL from Springfield—lambasted lawmakers for not working hard enough and threatened a shutdown of state government if he didn’t get his way. At one point, he even sued Madigan because the Speaker told lawmakers to skip the special sessions the governor had called. (As of presstime, Blagojevich had ordered the legislature into special sessions 36 times since taking office, half the total number of such sessions called by all governors since 1970.) James DeLeo, the state senator, who has served in the statehouse for 22 years, says the mood in Springfield is downright depressing. “I’ve never seen it worse,” he says. “I get up in the morning and I drink Maalox.” The intraparty squabbling among Democrats is so rancorous that Tom Cross and Frank Watson, the two Republican leaders in the General Assembly, have had to play the role of peacekeepers.

In August, after the General Assembly finally passed a budget—without funding for Blagojevich’s expanded health care plan—the governor slashed $463 million from it, insisting that the money was going to pork-barrel initiatives, many of them backed by his political foes. He also cut the budgets of Comptroller Hynes and Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan, as well as funding for the Illinois Arts Council, headed by Shirley Madigan, the Speaker’s wife. He announced that he was going to use the millions he cut from the budget to pay for expanded health coverage, despite the legislature’s lopsided rejection of his plan.

The bitterness between Blagojevich and his chief nemesis, Michael Madigan, hit an all-time low in October, after the Blagojevich administration abruptly fired Bronwyn Rains—the wife of Madigan’s chief of staff, Timothy Mapes—from her job as a child psychologist at the Department of Human Services. Rains had held the contractual position for 24 years and had a clean record. Blagojevich’s office justified the firing by claiming that Rains didn’t meet federally mandated educational requirements. But no one was buying that, at least in Springfield. “Once you start firing people’s spouses, you’ve declared nuclear war,” says one leading Democratic operative from Chicago. “And once you’ve gone nuclear, you can’t get rid of the fallout.”

The political squabbling has embarrassed the ruling Democratic Party, but more seriously it has left the state in terrible shape. Residents seem to blame Blagojevich. In a statewide poll conducted last summer, 53 percent of respondents said the governor was most at fault for the budget stalemate. Only 19 percent blamed the state legislature.

 "I think he’s being disproportionately blamed,” insists Ronen. “His tenacity and stubbornness sometimes isn’t always pretty, but that is how he has made change,” she adds, highlighting his accomplishments in expanding health care and preschool. Blagojevich stalwarts say the governor feels frustrated by what he considers to be a “do-nothing” General Assembly that consistently plays spoiler to his large-scale plans. “Some people think government shouldn’t do anything,” says Illinois senate president Emil Jones Jr., taking a thinly veiled swipe at Madigan. “That’s where the differences come in.”

The governor’s former inspector general said in a report that Blagojevich’s hiring practices showed “not merely ignorance of the law, but complete and utter contempt for the law.”

But the budget battle between Blagojevich and the legislature signals a deeper divide: The governor’s top priorities seem to be his alone. How else do you explain the 107-to-0 drubbing on the gross receipts tax? Or the flop of his proposals to sell off the state’s lottery, expand keno gambling into bars, and bail out the Chicago area’s cash-strapped mass transit system? Many Democratic lawmakers say fixing the state’s public education system, which relies too heavily on property taxes to fund schools, is their top priority, not universal health care, especially with the state so financially troubled. Yet Blagojevich refuses to abandon his pet initiatives. And when he doesn’t get his way, he has a penchant for publicly skewering his foes. He browbeat legislators a few years ago for spending like “drunken sailors” when they overturned his budget cuts. He called the State Board of Education a “Soviet-style bureaucracy” when he tried to take it over. One elected official described the governor’s certitude and self-righteousness as “almost a sickness.” In the fight over the gross receipts tax, for example, the governor tried to cast his critics as sinners. “This is more than a fight. This is a crusade,” he said during a public-relations blitz last spring. “It will be Armageddon, but we are on the side of the Lord and we will prevail.”

DeLeo argues that the governor feels in his heart that he is right. “I don’t think people understand how passionate and committed he is,” he says.

But Rich Miller says Blagojevich “believes so fervently he’s in the right that I don’t think he’s capable of understanding when people tell him he’s wrong.” If you don’t support his plan on, say, state-subsidized mammograms for women, then you’re for breast cancer. Or if you reject his education-funding initiatives, then you’re for dumb kids. “Rod has difficulty separating personal differences from the need to govern,” adds Fritchey, a former friend of Blagojevich’s who is now one of his loudest critics. “The role of governor is not that of the kid with the bat and ball who says, ‘If you don’t play by my rules, I’m taking my stuff and going home.’ That’s not how you govern. One does not govern by edict.”

A few people who work closely with Blagojevich’s office say they know that members of his staff have tried to get him to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric. But the governor shows no evidence of having a personality Plan B. “He can’t control himself,” says Miller. “I’ve heard people say that on his own staff.” A Democratic insider adds, “Rod sometimes just goes out of his way to have a fight, just because he can. It’s as though he relishes them.”

Those interviewed who know Blagojevich say the hot-tempered former Golden Gloves boxer has always had a penchant for fighting. It just wasn’t as obvious when he was an obscure state legislator and U.S. congressman with little influence. But even Blagojevich’s combativeness as governor has a lot of insiders shaking their heads in amazement. “Something happened to him after he won the [gubernatorial] primary,” says a prominent Democratic fundraiser, one of Blagojevich’s former friends. “I wish I could tell you what it was—I don’t think anyone has figured out what happened. It was like a personality change.”

The problem may come in part because Blagojevich grew up on Chicago politics. “He wants to govern like Daley,” says Miller, explaining that Blagojevich wants a legislature that is a rubber stamp, as the city council has been for much of the Daley era. “But you can’t automatically govern like Daley.” Miller says it took Daley years to build relationships with council members and establish his iron-tight grip on the chamber.

From the moment he took office, Blagojevich tried to exert more executive authority over state government, much to the chagrin of House Speaker Madigan, who has held the position since 1983 (except for a brief two-year period in the mid-1990s when Republicans captured his chamber).

Blagojevich’s go-it-alone approach worked for a while, as the Democratic rulers in the General Assembly more or less gave the newly elected governor and fellow Democrat leeway in his first year to pursue his political agenda. He even found a sympathetic ally in senate president Emil Jones Jr., who was often irritated by Madigan’s interference in his caucus.

Many political observers say the contentious budget battle in 2003 came as the tipping point. After the legislature had painstakingly negotiated and passed a budget agreement, Blagojevich turned around and vetoed millions of dollars from the state operating budget, including funding for a project he promised to lawmakers. Jacobs recalls how, earlier that year, Blagojevich had visited a school in his district and presented an oversize check for $13 million for school construction. The governor later vetoed funding for the project. “At some point, you gotta be straight with people,” Jacobs says.

“In Springfield, the budget is like a holy agreement, and it’s entirely based on trust,” Miller explains. “So when Rod decided he was going to break that agreement, it had a cataclysmic impact. The whole town has never been the same since.”

Distrust of Blagojevich became so deep after that episode that lawmakers publicly branded him a “liar” and likened him to a “used-car salesman.” And in an unprecedented move, they demanded that Blagojevich put any promises on paper in so-called memorandums of understanding.

In the meantime, Blagojevich often seemed more focused on a larger stage—pursuing what the Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin characterized as “ready-made campaign issues that have both local and national appeal, winning him face time on CNN, not merely the local news.” He railed against children’s access to violent games. He championed contraceptive rights—issuing an emergency order requiring all pharmacies in the state to fill prescriptions for morning-after pills. He created a program for Illinois residents to buy cheaper prescription medicines from Canada and Europe. And during the nationwide shortage of flu vaccine in 2004, he defied the Food and Drug Administration’s warning and ordered more than 250,000 doses from overseas drug wholesalers. (The FDA later barred Illinois from importing the vaccine, and $2.6 million in unused doses were eventually donated to earthquake survivors in Pakistan.)

Blagojevich’s critics complain that he would rather appeal to voters over the heads of legislators and promote himself than do the legislative dealing to pass real policies. It’s as if he’s in a continual campaign mode, they say—holding news conferences on slow news days to announce grandiose ideas that are quixotically appealing but have little chance of ever becoming law. Kent Redfield, a political studies professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says Blagojevich never made a smooth transition from being a no-namer among 435 legislators in Congress to being the leader. “Governing is a process that survives on compromise,” Redfield says, adding that Blagojevich “has gone out of his way to thumb his nose at that.”

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