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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Nowadays, says Alderman Mell, when he sees friends around city hall or in Springfield they’ll sometimes tease him about his role in promoting Blagojevich’s career: “Here comes Dr. Frankenstein,” they’ll say. “He created the monster.” Mell usually pastes on a smile and makes a wisecrack. But he says his fight with Blagojevich is no laughing matter: “It’s not a happy life right now.” People who know Mell say he doesn’t see his grandchildren as much since the family feud erupted. Even the death of his wife, Margaret, a year ago has not healed the family rift.

Blagojevich has not announced whether he will seek a third term in 2010. He continues to raise money for reelection, albeit not at the fast and furious pace of his previous two campaigns. By the end of June, the last filing period before presstime, Blagojevich had raised $374,352 but spent $767,551, leaving just $283,782 in his campaign coffers, according to state election records. Blagojevich’s expenses included, most notably, $163,770 in legal fees paid to Winston & Strawn. His campaign has doled out more than $1.1 million altogether to law firms, reportedly mostly for legal work related to the investigations into wrongdoing by his administration.

With the broken political relationships and the lingering legal threats, much of the state’s political establishment seems to be treating Blagojevich as if he’s already a lame duck.

Rich Miller refers to Blagojevich’s gubernatorial rule, jokingly, as the “Seinfeld Administration” because the creators of the TV sitcom had a philosophy of “No hugs, and no lessons learned.” He says: “The governor never grows, and he never learns.”

Nowadays, says Alderman Mell, when he sees friends around city hall or in Springfield they’ll sometimes tease him about his role in promoting Blagojevich’s career: “Here comes Dr. Frankenstein,” they’ll say. “He created the monster.”

Political insiders say there’s no shortage of Democrats eyeing the governor’s job. Any of the five Democratic constitutional officers, insiders say, would likely jump at the chance to upgrade to his office. Serious water cooler talk has also swirled lately around Obama, if he loses his presidential bid. “In Obama’s camp, they’re only talking about him running for president,” says a well-informed political fundraiser. “But door number two is the governor, and, trust me, a ‘Draft Obama for Governor’ movement is being discussed everywhere amongst the inner sanctum of the Democratic Party in Illinois. It’s his for the taking.”

Still, political watchers say Blagojevich should not be underestimated. “The office of governor has a lot of power in Illinois,” says Redfield. “And as long as he’s governor, he’ll continue to be a relevant actor.” He’s won every election he’s ever entered. He’s a masterful retail campaigner who has a special knack for working a room. And, of course, he’s a prodigious fundraiser. Says former state treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, who lost to Blagojevich in the 2006 gubernatorial election, “If he ran in the next election, and he pumped $40 million into slick TV ads, he’d win again.”

Not if Mell can help it, say people who know him. Mell’s friends say he’ll do whatever he can to make sure Blagojevich does not win again. They say he’s enamored of state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and would likely back the 31-year-old former semipro basketball player and Obama protégé should he take a shot at the governor’s office.

Mell won’t say whom he plans to support in the next gubernatorial election. But he adds that Blagojevich has not lived up to expectations. “I really liked Rod,” Mell says. “I thought there was great promise for Rod. I thought he could be the president. He went askew somewhere. Something happened—the power, or whatever. I don’t know.”

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