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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

(page 4 of 9)


Blagojevich confers with senate president Emil Jones Jr., one of his few remaining political allies.

For Blagojevich—who once bragged that he was displaying “testicular virility” by standing up to Mell—all the withering criticism, negative newspaper headlines, and next-to-nothing approval ratings should feel like a kick to the groin. But if he’s fazed, he doesn’t show it. In public, he looks easygoing, unshaken, even self-assured. He still cracks jokes and smiles that big, toothy grin. There’s not a speck of gray in his perfectly coifed mane of dark hair. No weary saddlebags under his eyes. And nary a wrinkle on his baby face. Outwardly, he seems like a man without a care: the Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?” governor. Asked for his reaction to the Tribune’s recall editorial, for instance, Blagojevich glibly told reporters, “I take that as a very good sign.” He went on to compare himself to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was also frequently in the cross hairs of the Tribune’s conservative-leaning editorial board.

Blagojevich makes no apologies for his defiant style. “I worry about the end result,” he once said in an interview. “If I have to ruffle a few feathers along the way, so be it.” The governor chalks up his worsening approval ratings to the general political malaise. No matter what the polls or his critics say, he insists that he has accomplished a lot. His office e-mailed me a three-page list, which includes raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.50 per hour; increasing education funding by $6 billion, the most of any Midwestern state; expanding preschool enrollment; reducing mercury emissions at coal-fired power plants, with a goal of 90-percent reductions by 2009; converting the toll highway system to open road tolling; and providing health care insurance coverage for nearly 400,000 children and parents who lack it. All this, he touts, while keeping his first-term campaign pledge not to raise income or sales taxes.

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

“If I were to just read the newspapers and go by the accounts in the media, I wouldn’t like him either,” says former state senator Carol Ronen, a longtime Blagojevich loyalist. “But if you get away from the drama and the covering of the political fights and look at what the governor’s accomplished, it’s pretty darn good.” State senator James DeLeo, another continuing Blagojevich ally, agrees: “They should be carrying him around on a chariot.”

Make that a tumbrel, say his many critics. Blagojevich’s tenure, they argue, has been a wasteland of political failures and embarrassments. Nothing significant has happened to resolve the state’s most urgent problems, including reforming the education system and school-funding practices; reducing state pension indebtedness; shoring up mass transit funding; and tightening campaign contribution laws.

Blagojevich’s opponents also argue that he has squandered progress on righting the state’s fiscal ship. Though he brags that he has eliminated the state’s multibillion-dollar deficit, his critics insist that he has merely postponed budget problems by selling bonds, raiding the public pension fund, and deferring Medicaid reimbursements. As a result, they claim, Illinois’s fiscal condition has deteriorated dangerously under his watch. And because Blagojevich has refused to raise sales and income taxes, lawmakers find themselves with few options to shore up the state’s finances or to pay for new schools, more health care, or Chicago Transit Authority improvements.

The governor’s critics also gripe that, for the fifth year in a row, Blagojevich and lawmakers have failed to pass a much-needed capital spending plan to fund big-ticket infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, and schools.

And then there are the corruption scandals that have touched his administration and shadowed him.

In all, his detractors say, the bill of particulars adds up to explain Blagojevich’s drubbing in the polls and the popular sentiment expressed by the Tribune’s editorial: “He is the governor who cannot govern.”

Photography: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

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