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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 7 of 9)

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At times Blagojevich seems to broadcast his disdain for his colleagues. Lawmakers are galled by how little time he spends at the statehouse—and their feelings aren’t soothed by knowing that he’s often absent from his Chicago office in the Thompson Center, too. “He governs out of his house or out of his campaign office,” says Fritchey. “That’s an odd way to govern.” In late November, CBS–Channel 2 captured politically embarrassing footage of Blagojevich watching a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game at the United Center while lawmakers were in Springfield, on the governor’s orders, voting on his emergency bill to bail out the CTA, Metra, and Pace. The measure fell 14 votes short. Infuriated lawmakers demanded that Blagojevich reimburse the $5,800 it costs to use a state plane to shuttle him roundtrip from Springfield to Chicago.

People who know Blagojevich well say part of the trouble comes from being an introvert in an extrovert’s business. “You wouldn’t know it if you see him,” says one former staffer, “but you practically have to push him out the door to do things.” What’s worse, he’s chronically and unapologetically late—for campaign events, for meetings, even for church—an annoying character flaw that some have dubbed “Rod Time.”

People were aghast, for instance, when Blagojevich showed up half an hour late to the funeral of state senator Vince Demuzio, a popular and venerable lawmaker who once chaired the state’s Democratic Party. In Blagojevich’s absence, Lieutenant Governor Quinn was called on to present Demuzio’s widow with the ceremonial flag that had been draped on her husband’s casket.

The prominent Democratic fundraiser and former friend of the governor’s recalls how Blagojevich arrived more than an hour and a half late for a weekday lunchtime event the fundraiser had organized for about 100 donors at a downtown restaurant. The lunch was scheduled to start at noon. By one o’clock, the fundraiser recalls, guests started leaving to go back to work. Shortly past one-thirty, he says, the governor finally arrived, but half the crowd had gone. Blagojevich had been only six blocks away. “He was late because he was at another event and he has the attitude like, ‘People just wait for me,’” the fundraiser says. 

The governor’s strange behavior has been fertile ground for local armchair psychologists. Last summer, the downstate newspaper the Peoria Journal Star declared that the governor was “going bonkers.” Privately, a few people who know the governor describe him as a “sociopath,” and they insist they’re not using hyperbole. State representative Joe Lyons, a fellow Democrat from Chicago, told reporters that Blagojevich was a “madman” and “insane.” “He shows absolutely no remorse,” says Jack Franks, the Democratic state representative. “I don’t think he gives a damn about anybody else’s feelings. He tries to demonize people who disagree with him; he’s got delusions of grandeur.”

Miller points out that people shouldn’t blame Blagojevich’s lousy governing skills on his personality alone: “You can be insane—totally whacked out psychologically—and be a good governor or a good president.”

Some people think that the governor’s behavior has turned more erratic in the past few years. One reason, they suspect, could be Barack Obama’s extraordinary rise. “Obama’s ascendancy had a significant impact on this guy,” says a Democratic lawmaker from Chicago. “Here’s a lifelong plan that’s been unfolding better than anyone could ever script—an unremarkable state’s attorney becomes an unremarkable state representative, becomes an unremarkable congressman, becomes an unlikely governor. My God, everything’s falling into place! All of a sudden the proverbial skinny guy with the funny name starts making some headway, decides to run for U.S. senator, wins the primary, then gets tapped to do the keynote speech [at the Democratic National Convention]. Knocks the fucking thing out of the park. So now when political people coast to coast talk about Illinois, they talk about Barack Obama. They don’t give a fuck about Rod Blagojevich.” (Blagojevich, like nearly every other Democratic elected official in the state, endorsed Obama in the presidential primary.)

 

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