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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During the race for governor, that neat demeanor was ruffled just once, a moment that also represents the low point in the relationship between Blagojevich and Mell. The candidate had offended Michael Madigan, the powerful leader of the Democrats statewide and Speaker of the Illinois House, by criticizing one of his pork barrel projects. Madigan retaliated by pointedly mentioning to reporters that Blagojevich carried unnamed “indiscretions” in his past. The press corps erupted in a post–Monica Lewinsky frenzy, unsuccessfully trying to get to the bottom of Madigan’s elusive charge. (Madigan did not return phone calls for this article.)

The episode was particularly painful to Patti Blagojevich-"It was just totally unwarranted,” she says-and thus to Mell, her father. One morning the alderman was in his car, listening as Don Wade and Roma on WLS-AM pondered what that “indiscretion” might be. Mell telephoned the station, quickly got on the air, and called the charge “baloney,” adding, “It’s even out there that Rod had consorted with a prostitute and that I had the [police] report destroyed.”

Blagojevich blew his stack and berated Mell in an angry call, according to a Blagojevich aide who witnessed it. “You put an elephant in the tent-there was no elephant and you brought an elephant in the tent by bringing it up,” he said. Typically, though, the anger soon passed. “Rod can be mad for a second, but can’t be mad for a minute,” says Mell. “I don’t think that Rod has ever held a grudge in his life.”

Steve Rauschenberger says that the purpose of Madigan’s remark was perfectly clear-"a warning shot across the bow” to Blagojevich not to imagine that “Clan Mell” can outmaneuver “Clan Madigan.” Rauschenberger argues that Madigan has huge ambitions for his daughter, Lisa, whom he helped elect Illinois attorney general last fall.

David Wilhelm insists that Blagojevich was befuddled by the charge, but was grateful at least that the uproar came after his mother’s death. In 1997, returning to Washington with Blagojevich on Air Force One, President Clinton told him that he could call anyone in the world from the plane’s phone. After failing to reach Patti, Blagojevich called his mother. “Hi, Mom. I’m on Air Force One with Bill Clinton,” he said proudly.

“Oh, son,” she told him, “don’t you let him get you in trouble.”

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