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 11 of 12)


At 4:45 that morning, accompanied by a cameraman from HBO, the congressman and his chief of staff went jogging through the streets of Belgrade. Despite the danger, Blagojevich says, he found the experience full of poignancy. He could not stop thinking, “I’m standing probably where my father [had stood].”

The next day they had their meeting with Milosevic, who offered to release just one G.I. According to friends of the governor’s, Milosevic seemed far more interested in Blagojevich than in Jackson, which irritated the civil rights leader. “Why are you all taken with him?” Jackson is said to have asked. “He’s your homeboy.” Jackson then explained that Blagojevich would have voted for the bombing had he been in Washington-the tie vote in the House, which, in effect, withheld support for the NATO air strikes, occurred as the minister and the congressman were en route. “My son,” Jackson said, “voted against the bombing.” For the next half-hour, Blagojevich tried to explain to Milosevic the meaning “homeboy.”

Eventually, Milosevic released all three POWs. Blagojevich knew that he would be elbowed out of the way by Jackson as soon as the TV cameras rolled, and he professed not to mind. But his father-in-law minded a lot. “Rod didn’t hog the front page like he could have and should have because Rod put it all together,” Mell says today.

But Blagojevich was looking to the future, and he understood that the successful trip would help him in a run for governor. As one former alderman says, “When Mell came around asking people for contributions, [he’d boast], ‘This isn’t just some child. This is the guy we see on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post.’”

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At first the rookie governor seemed like a student council president tossed into the real thing. Rich Miller, who writes the insider’s newsletter Capitol Fax, called Blagojevich’s first 100 days “perhaps the worst run, worst managed” since Dan Walker’s in 1973. Walker later spent time in prison and the Democrats endured 26 years of exile from the top spot. But just when other politicians might have been thinking of raising money to run in 2006, Blagojevich started to gain traction by appearing to reduce a $5-billion deficit-"the worst fiscal crisis in Illinois history,” he called it. He kept his promise not to raise taxes, but the financial arrangement has since been dogged by suggestions that he did it with gimmicks and that the structure would crumble, leaving the state’s ledgers in worse shape than before.

Reporting on the ins and outs of the budget gave way to front-page coverage of juicy battles between the governor and members of his own party-Jesse White, apoplectic when Blagojevich broke a handshake promise and slashed the secretary of state’s budget; senate president Emil Jones Jr., furious when Blagojevich used his amendatory veto to change the ethics bill, giving himself the power to appoint an inspector general; Michael Madigan, and much of the state’s liberal establishment, outraged when Blagojevich rewrote a section of a death penalty reform bill. The governor cut wording that would have made it easier to discipline police officers who lied on the witness stand-an effort, his critics charged, to play up to the police union at the risk of unraveling the entire bill and its monumental reforms.

The standing joke became that Blagojevich was in perpetual campaign mode and that someone needed to tell him that he already had the job. But talk that Blagojevich has his eye on another job, the Presidency, has trailed him for years.