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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 6 of 9)

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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.”

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