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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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Early on the January morning on which Rod Blagojevich was first sworn in as the 40th governor of Illinois, his father-in-law, the powerful Northwest Side alderman Richard Mell, was still hard at work on behalf of his protégé. In Springfield for the ceremony, Mell happened to spot his own picture on the front of a local weekly newspaper. The bold headline read: “The Governor in Law.”

Mell knew this could be trouble. “I went to every damn little store in Springfield I could see that had those things and scooped them in my trunk, ‘cause I knew that shit would drive him crazy,” Mell recalls. “Rod wanted everyone to think he got there on his own.”

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In fact, Mell had been widely credited as the chief architect of the Blagojevich campaign that ended in victory over Republican Jim Ryan, the state attorney general, in 2002. Early on, Mell pushed Blagojevich to amass a huge campaign war chest to scare off potential primary challengers. Then the alderman shrewdly predicted that Blagojevich’s strength lay Downstate and helped recruit Downstate party chairmen to support his son-in-law’s candidacy. Blagojevich ended up winning 55 percent of the Downstate primary vote, enough to squeak out a thin victory.

Mell insists that he largely kept his big ego in check during the campaign, but in the aftermath of the November election, he began to feel as if he were getting the cold shoulder from Blagojevich. His phone calls weren’t returned. He was left out of meetings. His nominees for state jobs got rejected. His advice was ignored.

Tempers flared outright a couple of months into Blagojevich’s term, over something seemingly trivial: office stationery. Mell’s office had printed Blagojevich’s name on the alderman’s 33rd Ward letterhead, an inappropriate link to the governor. Blagojevich was furious, but instead of calling Mell, he ordered one of his close advisers, Christopher Kelly, to handle it. Mell says Kelly summoned him to the East Bank Club and announced: “The governor’s really pissed off.” Asked why, Kelly shot back: “The stationery—it’s got his name on it!”

Recalling the incident today, Mell grows animated, and his voice rises: “He sends that asshole Kelly to reprimand me about stationery! He’s my son-in-law—pick up the goddamn telephone and call me.” Adding to Mell’s sense of insult, the governor’s office sent him a cease-and-desist letter. (Attempts to reach Kelly were unsuccessful.)

The breaking point in the deteriorating relationship between Mell and Blagojevich came several months later, in January 2005, after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency—acting on Blagojevich’s orders—temporarily shut down a Joliet landfill operated by Frank Schmidt, a distant cousin of Mell’s wife, Margaret. The governor’s office claimed it had acted after Blagojevich overheard at a family Christmas Eve dinner that Schmidt had been boasting to waste haulers that he had clout with the governor and Mell, and hence the haulers could dump illegal debris at his site without scrutiny from regulators. Schmidt denies saying any such thing. (A Cook County grand jury has been investigating whether Blagojevich’s administration abused its authority when it closed Schmidt’s landfill.)

Mell was vacationing with his wife in Florida when he got word about the landfill. “I’m just incensed this guy does this to me,” says Mell, who insists he had no financial stake in the landfill but was advising Schmidt. “[Blagojevich] throws me under the bus like that, puts me on the front page of the papers. That son of a bitch used me. He uses everybody and then discards ’em.”

 

Photoillustration: VibraCobradesign
Photography: (Dartboard) Jan Stromme/Getty Images, (Blagojevich) Jeff Sciortino

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