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

Over a span of six weeks I tried repeatedly to get Blagojevich to respond directly to this question but was rebuffed by his press secretary, Abby Ottenhoff, who said the governor was too busy to give an interview. But I interviewed more than 20 other people—from current and former members of the governor’s administration and his campaign staff to state lawmakers, Democratic benefactors and operatives, academics, pundits, and political prognosticators. My sources included both Blagojevich’s critics and supporters—yes, there are a few. (Many people asked not to be identified by name in the article because they wanted to avoid further conflict with Blagojevich or because they still had dealings with the governor.) Several people I spoke to resorted to colorful, four-letter language when describing the governor. The list of printable insults included “greedy,” “dumb,” “paranoid,” and “phony.” Even some of Blagojevich’s backers are befuddled by his behavior. “I like Rod personally,” says one supporter, a prominent Chicago businessman. “But he just hasn’t cut the mustard as a governor.”

Nearly everyone I spoke to agrees that Blagojevich is facing a career-threatening political crisis. Still, no consensus explanation emerges for his spectacular fall from grace, though several reasons were mentioned over and over. They are, in no particular order:

It’s the corruption, stupid! Despite Blagojevich’s repeated promises to “change business as usual” in Springfield—meaning, rid state government of pay-to-play politics—he has shown an inability or unwillingness to do so. On top of that, his own administration has been marred by alleged illegal hiring and political kickback scandals.

  • His guns-blazing, iron-fisted style with state legislators has resulted in all-out war and, consequently, political gridlock. Blagojevich doesn’t want to make deals; he wants a dogfight.
  • He picked bad enemies and possibly even worse friends.
  • He has never shifted his mindset from campaign mode to the reality of governing—favoring grandstanding photo ops and public-relations blitzes to the serious policy duties of the office.
  • He has failed to right the state’s fiscal ship, in large part because of his dogmatic refusal to raise income or sales taxes.
  • The credibility factor: Lawmakers and voters don’t trust Blagojevich—he has broken or reneged on too many promises.
  • The buck doesn’t stop with Rod. He never accepts blame for his—or his dministration’s—mistakes.
  • How rude! Even some of the governor’s friends gripe about his chronic tardiness, his absenteeism in Springfield, and his enduring aversion to returning phone calls.

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