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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Alderman Mell soon took note of his daughter’s personable, energetic boyfriend-Mell’s own son, now on the city payroll at O’Hare International Airport, was shy and obviously not suited to politics-and gave him a part-time staffer’s job handling legal and nonlegal matters for residents of the 33rd Ward. Blagojevich had to hang around on Monday nights-"ward night"-and on Saturdays. “From a business standpoint, it was helpful because it gave me a chance to meet more people,” Blagojevich says. “I didn’t have any big anchor corporate clients. I had to get a new person to hire me or I couldn’t pay the bills. Your uncle gets hit by a car, call me.” (Chicago Tribune reporters investigating Mell later discovered that his son-in-law’s salary showed up on the books of four divisions of city government. Blagojevich says that his father-in-law was paying him “out of position,” something that, he claims, “aldermen would do all the time.")

Blagojevich kept another office on West Montrose Avenue. He hired his mother to keep things tidy and to greet potential clients. It wasn’t exactly “L.A. Law,” Blagojevich says. Once, he was trying to sign up a new client when his mother stormed into the office. “She throws this telephone message at me: ‘Gladys Shiba just called, and she’s disgusted with the way you’re handling her case.’ Storms out of there. And this potential client is looking at all of this.”

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Rod and Patti were at home on a Sunday night in 1992 when Mell called in a panic to ask his son-in-law if he would run for a seat in the state legislature. Mell had to know immediately because the race had been turned upside down by an unexpected defection. He warned Blagojevich that he would probably lose-he would be running against an incumbent backed by Mayor Daley, Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, and former park district chief Ed Kelly. With Mell mobilizing the precinct captains, however, Blagojevich surprised everyone by winning.

In the process, he proved that he was born to campaign. “He would visit every bingo game in the district,” recalls Sammy Esteban. “He’d play a game and donate $25 or $100, make a speech, and pass out literature.” When he spoke to people, Esteban adds, the warmth seemed to “come from inside him. Not phony.”

Like most freshman legislators, Blagojevich started out by “lying low and watching,” says Tom Cross, a Republican who became a close friend in Springfield. In the meantime, Blagojevich made friends with members of both parties. Jan Schakowsky, then a colleague in the Illinois House, saw him as upbeat and optimistic. “For Rod, every day is a pretty good day,” she says. “He didn’t agonize over ‘What if I say this?’ or ‘What if I make somebody mad?’”

Critics say that he did not need to agonize, because Mell called him on the House floor and told him how to vote. Friends of Blagojevich’s insist that is not the way it played out. “I’ve never once heard Alderman Mell indicate to [Blagojevich] how he should vote or what he should believe,” says Jay Hoffman, a House colleague. Indeed, no one would ever mistake Mell for a policy wonk. “Mell is interested in the game and winning the game, but he doesn’t care for or against any particular policy,” says Mike Ascaridis, who became a Mell precinct captain.

Blagojevich served on the criminal judiciary committee, where he helped draft a truth in sentencing bill and introduce a bill to take guns from people with domestic battery convictions. Both eventually became law. Senator Carol Ronen, who also served on the committee when she was in the House, says that although Blagojevich’s Northwest Side district was hardly a bastion of progressiveness, Blagojevich was a “total progressive” on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

Others were less impressed. One colleague noticed his tendency to talk about “good government,” but not “to struggle with issues.” Republican Steve Rauschenberger, who arrived in the General Assembly the same year as Blagojevich and was later named chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says that while Blagojevich was “exceptionally personable,” Rauschenberger would never have taken him a complex issue.

Sammy Esteban recognized that Blagojevich was not fully engaged. “Did I get elected to get license plates for somebody?” he complained to Esteban.