Governor Sunshine

From our November 2003 issue: Things could not be better for Rod Blagojevich. He loves politics, and he has won every election he has entered (with help from his father-in-law, a clout-heavy alderman). The govenorship is his focus now, he insists, but this look at his personal history suggests he hopes for much, much more.

(page 10 of 12)


Blagojevich’s chance to move up came after Republican Michael Flanagan beat embattled Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski in 1994 for the Fifth District congressional seat. Two years later, the conservative Flanagan was an easy target for a Democrat. With Mell running the show and Mayor Daley’s support to boot, Blagojevich easily won the primary against Nancy Kaszak, and he coasted to victory in the general election.

In his three terms in Congress, Blagojevich was probably best known for his work on gun control legislation, most of which the Republican Congress blocked. He also focused on issues of transportation, influenced by Congressman William Lipinski, a close confidant of Mell’s. According to Blagojevich’s first chief of staff, John Wyma, Blagojevich and Mell would talk every couple of weeks, often about matters other than politics. In all, Blagojevich had trouble shaking an image as “Congressman Lite.”

And being one of 435 did not suit his growing need for the limelight. As a back-bencher in the minority party, “you have very little impact on what goes on,” he complained to his law school classmate Lon Monk, who went to work for Blagojevich in Congress. His second chief of staff, Dave Stricklin, says Blagojevich was annoyed by the slow pace of Congress.

John Wyma points out that Blagojevich did not wear his congressional lapel pin-a move symbolic, Wyma says, of the representative’s view of Congress as “a group of folks who spent lots of time reinforcing a Washington perspective on things. He didn’t get elected to Congress to wear a pin and go to caucus meetings.”

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Blagojevich’s mother died of lung cancer in January 1999-Sammy Esteban took her to many of her chemotherapy appointments-and later that year he was ready for a change. He also missed his family. Patti and he had had their first daughter, Amy, in 1996, and Patti rarely went to Washington. Blagojevich bought a two-bedroom condo on Dupont Circle, but he stayed there by himself. He used to tell Esteban, “Amy isn’t going to recognize me.” Had Blagojevich stayed in Washington, Patti says, “I don’t feel like we would have had a second child.” (Anne was born earlier this year.)

As it became clear that scandal had fatally wounded Governor George Ryan, Blagojevich redoubled his already energetic efforts to raise money. (He seems to enjoy the never-ending task that most politicians claim to loathe.) “I’d miss a lot of those [Democratic] caucuses,” he said. “I had other things to do, like go running, [or do some] fundraising.” Asked to give an example of Blagojevich’s goal-oriented approach to his congressional work, Dave Stricklin answers, “Having X amount of dollars raised by X date.”

Then an opportunity to acquire the visibility that still eluded Blagojevich emerged in the despised person of Slobodan Milosevic, the fiercely nationalistic Serbian president of Yugoslavia. NATO had launched air strikes against Yugoslav troops under Milosevic’s command. Meanwhile, Milosevic was holding three American POWs. The Reverend Jesse Jackson wanted to go to Belgrade to meet with Milosevic and plead for the freedom of the Americans. As the only Serb in Congress, Blagojevich knew he could get that meeting, and his fluency in Serbian would help in negotiating. He approached Jackson through his son Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. Arrangements were made to go-despite the opposition of the Clinton Administration, which stressed that the safety of Jackson and Blagojevich could not be guaranteed and that NATO would not stop bombing just because they were there.

Before dawn on their first night at the Hyatt Belgrade, a precision bomb “took out a huge building,” recalls John Wyma, who accompanied his boss. The men were staying at opposite sides of the hotel, and at 3 a.m. Blagojevich awakened Wyma with a phone call. “Are you seeing this, man? Are you seeing this?” Wyma went to Blagojevich’s room, where he found the congressman in his running shorts watching the destruction out his window as if it were a special effects extravaganza.