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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To his critics, the marriage anchors the notion that Blagojevich is shamelessly opportunistic, willing to make other politicians-even fellow Democrats-look bad to buff his own profile, and comfortable pandering to win a point. Republican state senator Steve Rauschenberger, from Elgin, says that Blagojevich cannot help grandstanding because he does not know why he wants to be governor “except he wants to do something after he’s governor.”

Following one public scrap, Patti Blagojevich recalls asking her husband, “Can you get re-elected if you tee off all the elected officials?”

“Yes,” he answered. “So long as the people like you, and you have enough campaign funds, it doesn’t make any difference what the politicians think of you.”

But even Rauschenberger marvels at Blagojevich’s unwavering optimism, his apparent belief that no matter how infuriating his behavior or treacherous his policies, everyone-even those who have been harshly critical-will find him irresistible. Rauschenberger recalls when the newly elected governor came to the state senate chamber and spoke to each member individually. “I got out of my chair so I didn’t have to talk to him,” Rauschenberger says. “He followed me around, cornered me by the phone booth where I had retreated.” Blagojevich told him that the Speaker of the U.S. House, Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican with whom Blagojevich had served in Washington, thought a lot of him.

Rauschenberger is among Blagojevich’s harshest critics, but he may have highlighted a psychological truth about the governor: He is Clintonesque in his ability to put criticism behind him and move forward, confident in his ability to win people over. Schakowsky says she knew that he would win the governor’s race when she watched him campaign at a gathering of union members. As he entered the room, she recalls, “there was this crackle of electricity. Everyone wanted to touch him.”

A son of the Northwest Side with an unimpressive academic record and an undistinguished career as a small-time lawyer, Blagojevich has modest credentials, and his talents as a leader are unclear. But another childhood friend, Mike Ascaridis, says that the key to Blagojevich’s ascendancy lies with his late mother, Millie, a ticket taker for the Chicago Transit Authority. She drilled her sons on one of those sentimental aphorisms usually put away with childhood toys: “Don’t be afraid to dream big. You can do anything in this country.” At 46, Rod Blagojevich still believes it.

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