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.

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Some of Blagojevich’s most fervent fans like to say that he has outgrown Dick Mell, that Mell is just a ward politician, while his son-in-law is now governor of one of the country’s largest states. But as with Blagojevich’s every unlikely step up the political ladder, Mell provided a boost last fall. As the alderman himself is eager to say, he was “extremely important” in putting his son-in-law in the governor’s chair. (The characterization is apparently well considered: Mell rates himself as “the deciding factor” in Blagojevich’s election to the Illinois House and “very, very important” in his election to Congress.)

“I think credibility was what I was able to give him at the beginning of the governor’s race by helping him with his fundraising,” Mell says. The first million that Mell shook out allowed his son-in-law to wage his campaign both in the Chicago area and downstate. Support downstate, where Blagojevich’s TV ads ran early, proved the key to his primary victory over Paul Vallas, the dethroned chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools. (Blagojevich enjoyed a stroke of luck in the general election because his opponent, Jim Ryan, shared a last name with the scandal-plagued outgoing governor, George Ryan.)

Mell also showed his stuff when he organized the press conference in which Blagojevich vowed to stay in the race no matter who decided to run, including the mayor’s brother William Daley, who was considering a campaign. Mell had already lined up the support of his fellow ward committeemen, but that crucial press gathering featured some heavy hitters-including Congressman Bill Lipinski and Alderman Ed Burke-and let the Daleys know that the First Brother would have a fight on his hands. Ultimately Bill Daley decided to stay out.

Still, Blagojevich’s personality and strengths factored into this race in a way they had not in others. He perfected a routine that allowed him to neutralize the Son-in-Law tag by belaboring his shortcomings-for example, volunteering at seemingly every stop that he had gotten a D in algebra. David Wilhelm, the Democratic wheel who chaired Blagojevich’s campaign, calls this self-deprecation “such a gift, so unlike other politicians. Could you imagine Richard Nixon making fun of himself that way?”

Danny Angarola points out that the modesty has another tactical advantage: People stop asking “the real tough questions. It lulls them into a sense of underestimating him.”

Blagojevich coupled the low-key personal approach with what Jeff Schoenberg, a colleague in the Illinois House, calls “a lobe in his brain dedicated to remembering personal details about you. Vallas may have been able to explain the school aid formula to you, but Rod remembered where he met you and had people coming away feeling good.”

In 1992, when Blagojevich was first running for state representative, Mell presented him with a gift that kept on giving through the gubernatorial campaign-a driver, one of Mell’s precinct captains, Sammy Esteban, an employee of the Chicago water department. Esteban insists that he worked as a volunteer, doing the campaign driving only after he got off work; if he was needed during the day, Esteban says, he took vacation time. (Doing political work on water department time would have violated the law.)

Over the years and through the campaigns, Esteban became a kind of confidant to Blagojevich and was one of the few people who saw him when his confidence waned. According to his driver, before his speech announcing that he was running for governor, Blagojevich said, “I want you to come next to me because I’m shy.”

As the campaign wore on, the old confidence re-emerged. After a morning run through the streets of his Ravenswood Manor neighborhood, Blagojevich would bound into the front seat of Esteban’s car and stow his hairbrush-his aides nicknamed it “the football"-in the glove compartment, removing it frequently to tame his floppy mane. (Blagojevich’s top aides warned him that his bangs made him look goofy, but he insisted on keeping them.) The candidate would pop Elvis CDs into the car’s player. Between campaign stops Blagojevich and his driver were always on the lookout for the best hot dogs and Italian beef. (Blagojevich is capable of downing two dogs and a beef in one meal.) In line at Al’s #1 Italian Beef on Taylor Street, he couldn’t stop campaigning.

“Once people meet him,” says Esteban, “they take to him right away, because he’s a regular guy, a working-class guy.”

And yet Blagojevich would also show Esteban swatches of fabric for suits, and Esteban would drive him to the Oxford factory. There he had his suits made by Rocko, who has also dressed Senator Jay Rockefeller, Fifth District congressman Rahm Emanuel, and, most famously, President-elect George W. Bush.