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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Why the sad face? We count a few of the ways in which things have gone sour for Governor Blagojevich: (from left) gross recipts tax defeat: 170-0; gridlock in Springfield; federal corruption probes

Rod Blagojevich has left a gubernatorial trail littered with other political casualties besides Mell. David Wilhelm served as chairman of Blagojevich’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign committee and his postelection transition team. Eventually he returned to the private sector as a lobbyist but continued to work closely with Blagojevich as an unofficial policy adviser. In 2005, however, not long after the landfill imbroglio between Mell and Blagojevich, Wilhelm left for his home state of Ohio, where today he runs two venture capital firms. Wilhelm insists he never had a falling-out, per se, with Blagojevich. Instead, he says, his departure was a “natural evolution. I’m a kind of campaign guy. The day the transition was over, my job was basically over.” Still, his abrupt exit took many local political observers by surprise. As one prominent Democratic fundraiser recalls, “People were really talking about this. First Rod has this falling-out with Mell. Then he has this falling-out, or whatever, with David. Suddenly it became like this Agatha Christie novel: ‘Who’s next?’”

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Take your pick. Blagojevich has wrangled with practically everyone in the statehouse. The governor and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who also chairs the state Democratic Party, have been embroiled in a nasty political feud worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys. Blagojevich has also warred frequently with his lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, as well as with each of the other state constitutional officers—comptroller Daniel Hynes, attorney general Lisa Madigan, secretary of state Jesse White, and treasurer Alexi Giannoulias—all Democrats. He’s butted heads with Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley on numerous occasions. He has even sparred with members of the state supreme court over their pay. “This is a governor who I don’t think has a single ally, except for Senate president Emil Jones—and that’s tenuous at best,” says Mike Jacobs, a Democratic state senator from the Quad Cities. “I almost feel sorry for the man.”

In public, Blagojevich and the other Democratic leaders try to downplay the political bickering. Michael Madigan has chalked up the rumblings in Springfield to a case of “Democrats being Democrats.” But anger with Blagojevich crosses party lines. At least two Republican lawmakers have gone so far as to publicly call for his impeachment.

“I like being governor, but I have a confession to make,” Blagojevich told South Side churchgoers not long before his 2006 reelection. “I have fewer friends than I did four years ago. But I got elected to do things for people—not for other politicians—so that’s OK." 

Except that things aren’t OK these days for Blagojevich. He has clearly struck a nerve beyond the capitol. Now, as he enters the second year of his second term, his public approval ratings are at a record low: a paltry 16 percent, according to one recent poll. (Other polls show Blagojevich faring slightly better, in the mid to low 20s.) Even in this recently true-blue Democratic state, Blagojevich is more unpopular than the widely unpopular Republican president, George W. Bush. Rich Miller, who writes the insider’s newsletter/blog Capitol Fax, says Blagojevich is arguably the most unpopular governor in the country. “I’ve looked at a lot of polls, and I can’t find a governor anywhere whose numbers are worse than Blagojevich’s,” he says.

Miller points out that voters expect results, and the paralysis in Springfield has tried their patience. An oft-used axiom compares the unsightly process of lawmaking to that of sausage making: You don’t want to watch it happening. Yet in Illinois, the sausage isn’t even getting made, and that failure has left many people angry and disgusted.

In late October the state’s largest daily newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, ran a scathing and unprecedented editorial urging passage of a constitutional amendment allowing voters to recall state officials, specifically Blagojevich. (Like the Tribune, this magazine is owned by Tribune Company.) A statewide poll conducted shortly after the editorial ran found that a majority of Illinois voters questioned—51.9 percent—would recall Blagojevich if they could. Even 46.7 percent of those identified as Democrats favored his removal.

Given that the governor has spent much of his time in office fending off accusations of ethical irregularities within his administration, many of his former backers have distanced themselves from him. For example, Blagojevich was left off the speaker’s platform during Senator Barack Obama’s presidential announcement last February. “He’s Kryptonite,” says state representative Jack Franks, a Democrat from Woodstock, who is one of Blagojevich’s biggest critics. “Nobody wants to get near this guy.”

All of which raises the question: What the hell happened—how did things go so wrong?

Photography: (From left) AP Photo/Seth Perlman; AP Photo/Seth Perlman; AP Photo/Brian Kersey

 

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