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GOVERNOR SUNSHINE >>
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Blagojevich, whose improbable political rise to the state’s top job is a tale worthy of a Charles Dickens novel. The son of an immigrant steelworker and a CTA ticket taker, Blagojevich, 51, grew up in a gritty neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side. As a youngster he shined shoes and delivered pizzas to help his family make ends meet. A mediocre student even by his own account—but a charmer fueled by ambition and scrappy street smarts—he got a law degree and through his father’s connections was hired as a legal clerk in the law office of Edward Vrdolyak, one of Chicago’s most powerful aldermen. Through a friend, he was hired as a traffic court prosecutor in the office of then Cook County state’s attorney Richard M. Daley.
In 1988, with politics on his mind, Blagojevich attended a fundraiser for Mell, where he asked a more politically connected friend to introduce him to the alderman’s 23-year-old daughter, Patti. They married two years later. Not long afterward, Mell recalls, Patti came to him and asked: “You know, Rod has always wanted to run for some office—do you think it’ll ever come up?” Opportunity knocked in 1992—right on Mell’s turf—and Blagojevich won a seat in the Illinois House. He served four years in Springfield and in 1996 was elected to U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski’s old congressional seat.
Over the years Blagojevich racked up campaign victories but few noteworthy political accomplishments. His most notable achievement came in 1999, when, as a congressman, he helped Rev. Jesse Jackson free three U.S. prisoners of war in Yugoslavia. “I think he got a post office named after a fallen police officer,” state representative John Fritchey says of Blagojevich’s résumé. “That’s about it.” In both Springfield and Washington, he earned a reputation as a friendly and outgoing legislator, but not a particularly serious one. During his first run for governor, Blagojevich was something of a political Zelig: a pretty-boy political lightweight reared in Chicago’s old-style wheeling-dealing ways, but a candidate who campaigned as a progressive populist and anticorruption activist. So when he was elected in 2002—the first Democrat in 26 years to win the governorship—no one was exactly sure what kind of governor he would turn out to be. But with Democrats controlling the executive mansion, both chambers of the General Assembly, and all but one of the state’s five constitutional offices, political observers figured: How bad could he be?
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