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The few articles that have delved into Kelly’s life beyond his legal troubles have cast his ascent to the upper reaches of Illinois politics as unlikely, because of both his supposed blue-collar beginnings and the way he staked his claim: as the owner of an obscure South Side roofing company. The reality is, Kelly grew up as part of a large Irish Catholic family that lived in a comfortable neighborhood in Champaign.
His father, a building contractor named Jack Kelly, did well enough that the family belonged to the Champaign Country Club, a sprawling private sanctuary of rolling, landscaped hills that features a championship golf course, a plush clubhouse, a pool, and a state-of-the-art fitness center. The patriarch’s seven children were afforded the opportunity to attend excellent colleges, including Notre Dame and, in Chris Kelly’s case, the University of Illinois.
It has been reported that Kelly attended high school on the South Side. In fact, he went to Champaign Central, where he was known for his prowess on the tennis court, for his big, affable personality, and for being one of the few kids driving his own car—not just any ride, but a green fastback Mustang.
“It was a great family,” recalls Chuck Trautman, a grade-school friend who now lives in Colorado and who lost touch with Kelly after graduation. “We had lots of sleepovers, late-night runs to Eisner grocery for Pop-Tarts.” Mike Campbell, a friend from high school, remembers Kelly as an excellent tennis player who loved the adrenaline of competition but was unforgiving with himself. “He rarely lost,” Campbell says. “But he’d get very upset with himself when he made a mistake.
“He was quite a character,” Campbell adds. “Very flamboyant, very loud, very opinionated. He was very visible, very popular. Everybody knew Chris.”
Kelly began college at the University of Illinois in 1976, pledging into Sigma Chi, the campus’s oldest fraternity, and majoring in landscape architecture. One frat buddy, Martin Kiesewetter, recalls Kelly as “confident, but I wouldn’t say cocky. He presented himself well.” Kiesewetter’s wife, Connie—who also knew Kelly—says he used his charisma to full advantage. “I think that’s one of the reasons he got to where he was,” she says. “Not because he was the smartest or most driven or the most well read, but he had that likable kind of personality.”
Later in life, Kelly would struggle with alcohol problems, but Kiesewetter says that he saw no warning signs at the time. “We partied, but we weren’t known as an Animal House,” he says. “Our fraternity had one of the highest GPAs on campus.” Kelly apparently took his field of study seriously. “I remember his room,” Kiesewetter recalls. “He had all sorts of [architectural] drawings up on his wall.”
After casting about for a while after college, Kelly hooked up with a South Side roofing company owned by the family of another college friend, William Cleary. Following in the footsteps of his building contractor father, Kelly plunged into the trade, learning the ropes of the business—most important, the hard political realities of how contracts were won.
Eventually Cleary and Kelly had a falling-out, and Kelly started his own roofing business. By then he had built a network of powerful friends who helped his company grow. Among them was Ronald Rossi, a man he would later describe as his best friend, whose family owns Rossi Contractors in Northlake. In time Kelly launched his own roofing business, BCI Commercial Roofing, as well as a second firm, CGK Consulting (“CGK” being an acronym for Christopher G. Kelly).
From the start, the companies seemed destined for success. When it comes to construction contracts, none are more coveted than those connected to O’Hare Airport, and in 1998, Kelly, teaming with Rossi, won his first bid on such a contract—a project worth at least $7 million. Quite a coup for a new kid on the block. In the years that followed, he would snag millions more in O’Hare contracts, prompting talk from suspicious rival roofing companies that Kelly had the inside track on the bidding process.
“We were one of three roofing companies that bid on a . . . contract out at O’Hare probably six, seven, eight years ago,” recalls Bill O’Brien, vice president of Combined Roofing Services in West Chicago. “We did our calculation, and we ended up at $10 million. We get the bid results and he’s at $2 million, and we’re scratching our heads, [wondering] what the hell’s going on here. We then bid another similar contract three years later. We screwed down our numbers tighter and tried to be a little bit more aggressive, and we still got blown away. He got it again. We said, ‘How’s he doing that?’ We had suspicions, obviously. When you lose that kind of work by those kinds of numbers, you go, ‘What the hell is he doing? Is he cheating?’ But we couldn’t be sure.”
Whatever Kelly was doing, it was working. BCI flourished. Contracts and money began pouring in. Kelly and his wife, Carmen, moved into an upscale home in the suburbs. Children—three daughters—followed. Realizing the power of political influence, Kelly began building a network of donors he could tap to make contributions to various politicians. Quickly he became “a player,” says the former senior Blagojevich aide.
Blagojevich later told the Chicago Sun-Times that he first met Kelly through Ronald Rossi at a political fundraiser in the 1990s. “Rossi was smoking a cigar. I introduced myself to them,” Blagojevich recalled. (Blagojevich initially agreed to be interviewed for this story but never responded to questions.)
The future governor and Kelly had much in common. Both were deeply proud of their ethnic roots, both loved sports—particularly baseball (sometimes spending long periods on the phone discussing stats and trivia)—and both were action junkies. The two quickly developed a bond that went far beyond the usual friendships of political expediency and a shared taste for the blood sport of Illinois politics. Their families grew close, even taking trips together—reportedly vacationing in Bermuda for ten days in the summer of 2003. Perhaps most important, the two men viewed the world through a similar cultural prism.
“Chris was a guy who had a very Chicago accent, who was a very ‘dems-dese-and-dohs’ sort of guy,” says the former senior aide. “That appealed to Rod because Kelly was like a lot of the guys who Rod grew up with. They both shared a disdain for the sort of structured elite, and Kelly was the classic nouveau riche. He was trying to horn his way into that world. So they both had a cultural chip on their shoulders.”
Blagojevich found one of Kelly’s traits particularly appealing, the former senior aide says. “Rod always respected one thing and that was people who could raise the money. If you were some North Shore liberal goo-goo but couldn’t raise money, it was like the lowest form of life in Rod’s world. If you were a blue-collar neighborhood guy who could also raise money, you were a guy worth listening to.”
When Kelly helped Blagojevich win the Democratic nomination for governor and then the office itself in 2002 by raising more than $30 million—shattering all previous fundraising records—Blagojevich began to listen to Kelly very closely. The new governor also began to freeze out the man who had previously been his go-to fundraising angel: his father-in-law, the longtime Chicago alderman Dick Mell. “Rod had always had a stormy relationship with Dick, and he started to sort of push Dick away and say, ‘Hey, this is where the real juice is,’” says the former senior aide. That may have been true in some respects, but the decision would in time prove disastrous for both Blagojevich and Kelly.
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