How Illinois Got Rod Blagojevich, and How He Lost Us

So… what just happened? Not just today, but how did Rod Blagojevich go from governor and future president to disgraced ex-governor and future inmate? Here’s a tour through the past eight years from the pages of our magazine.

Rod Blagojevich sentencing

 

Update: For a longer historical perspective, see Shane Tritsch’s 2010 piece “Why Is Illinois So Corrupt?” First answer: real estate boom.

For all that we know about Rod Blagojevich, down to the phone calls that sealed his fate, the one thing that still seems to perplex people—or at least the question I get a lot—is “how’d you end up with this guy?” The second is usually “no, seriously?” To answer that, here’s a tour of Blagojevich’s rise and fall through the pages of Chicago:

“Governor Sunshine,” Carol Felsenthal, November 2003:

“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.)

Just let that sink in: “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.”

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.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: my impression of why Blagojevich was elected for the first time was that after George Ryan, a nice guy with a big smile, luscious hair, a self-deprecating personality, and a foundation in the Democratic power structure was appealing to voters.

And about that last thing….

“Mr. Unpopularity,” David Bernstein, February 2008:

Blagojevich has wrangled with practically everyone in the statehouse. The governor and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who also chairs the state Democratic Party, have been embroiled in a nasty political feud worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys. Blagojevich has also warred frequently with his lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, as well as with each of the other state constitutional officers—comptroller Daniel Hynes, attorney general Lisa Madigan, secretary of state Jesse White, and treasurer Alexi Giannoulias—all Democrats. He’s butted heads with Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley on numerous occasions. He has even sparred with members of the state supreme court over their pay. “This is a governor who I don’t think has a single ally, except for Senate president Emil Jones—and that’s tenuous at best,” says Mike Jacobs, a Democratic state senator from the Quad Cities. “I almost feel sorry for the man.”

[snip]

Now, as he enters the second year of his second term, his public approval ratings are at a record low: a paltry 16 percent, according to one recent poll. (Other polls show Blagojevich faring slightly better, in the mid to low 20s.) Even in this recently true-blue Democratic state, Blagojevich is more unpopular than the widely unpopular Republican president, George W. Bush. Rich Miller, who writes the insider’s newsletter/blog Capitol Fax, says Blagojevich is arguably the most unpopular governor in the country. “I’ve looked at a lot of polls, and I can’t find a governor anywhere whose numbers are worse than Blagojevich’s,” he says.

Bernstein reveals that, for all Blagojevich’s high-profile battles with the state’s power brokers, things were just as stormy under the surface, as Blagojevich left no fight unpicked:

In August, after the General Assembly finally passed a budget—without funding for Blagojevich’s expanded health care plan—the governor slashed $463 million from it, insisting that the money was going to pork-barrel initiatives, many of them backed by his political foes. He also cut the budgets of Comptroller Hynes and Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan, as well as funding for the Illinois Arts Council, headed by Shirley Madigan, the Speaker’s wife. He announced that he was going to use the millions he cut from the budget to pay for expanded health coverage, despite the legislature’s lopsided rejection of his plan.

The bitterness between Blagojevich and his chief nemesis, Michael Madigan, hit an all-time low in October, after the Blagojevich administration abruptly fired Bronwyn Rains—the wife of Madigan’s chief of staff, Timothy Mapes—from her job as a child psychologist at the Department of Human Services. Rains had held the contractual position for 24 years and had a clean record. Blagojevich’s office justified the firing by claiming that Rains didn’t meet federally mandated educational requirements. But no one was buying that, at least in Springfield. “Once you start firing people’s spouses, you’ve declared nuclear war,” says one leading Democratic operative from Chicago. “And once you’ve gone nuclear, you can’t get rid of the fallout.”

I think this goes a long way to explaining the crimes Blagojevich was sentenced for today. Whereas most politicians can expect a soft landing because of their personal and political connections—as Felsenthal noted yesterday, they translate very easily to well-paying legal sinecures—Blagojevich had burned bridges in Chicago and Springfield and across political lines. When you’re at 16 percent approval among the people who hired you and probably less among the people who will get you a job when the former fire you, there’s not a lot left to leverage besides your constitutional responsibilities.

David Bernstein followed up in 2009 with a look at how Blagojevich was connected to Obama, Emanuel, and Axelrod. It also helps explain how Rod Blagojevich became a congressman with Axelrod’s help… and governor without it:

Of Blagojevich’s shortcomings, retail campaigning was certainly not one of them. He was a natural—always smiling, upbeat, and eager to hit the el stops, to shake hands and kiss babies. “Nobody could work a room like Rod—nobody,” says Jan Schakowsky, the Democratic congresswoman who served with Blagojevich in Springfield and Washington.

That talent didn’t escape Axelrod’s practiced eye. A master image-maker, he mines a candidate’s biography for compelling details and then builds a supporting narrative that resonates with the concerns of average voters. With Blagojevich, Axelrod spun a yarn highlighting the rise from an immigrant family’s blue-collar roots—the storybook American Dream. One memorable Axelrod spot showed various lunch-bucket locals bungling Blagojevich’s tongue-twisting Serbian name, ending with a down-home waitress advising, “Just call him Rod.”

Axelrod was also a fierce protector of his client. He brought in his friend Carol Ronen, a progressive state representative and vocal gay-rights activist, to be campaign manager—a move intended to put a good-government face on Blagojevich, who was seen by many as simply a Machine hack.

But then Axelrod bailed on Blagojevich for reasons that are resonant.

Axelrod also had serious doubts about Blagojevich’s readiness to be governor—his ethics, his maturity. “At one point, David asked Rod, ‘Why do you want to be governor?’” says Forrest Claypool, the Cook County commissioner and a longtime friend of Axelrod’s. “And the best that Blagojevich could come up with was, ‘It’ll be fun.’ There was no mission, no principles. It was just, sort of, a game to him.”

Ultimately, Axelrod sat out the contest. Blagojevich was beyond hurt. “To have your longtime political consultant not do your next-level campaign—I’m sure any candidate, not just Rod, would take that very personally,” says the second former aide to Blagojevich.

In Bryan Smith’s posthumous profile of Blagojevich aide Christopher Kelly, you can see who replaced political stars like Axelrod and Mell in Blagojevich’s increasingly small inner circle:

When Kelly helped Blagojevich win the Democratic nomination for governor and then the office itself in 2002 by raising more than $30 million—shattering all previous fundraising records—Blagojevich began to listen to Kelly very closely. The new governor also began to freeze out the man who had previously been his go-to fundraising angel: his father-in-law, the longtime Chicago alderman Dick Mell. “Rod had always had a stormy relationship with Dick, and he started to sort of push Dick away and say, ‘Hey, this is where the real juice is,’” says the former senior aide. That may have been true in some respects, but the decision would in time prove disastrous for both Blagojevich and Kelly.

[snip]

In those heady early days, however, Kelly was flying high—figuratively and literally. A force in the governor’s office, he had Blagojevich’s ear perhaps more than any member of the cabinet, shadow or otherwise, including Tony Rezko and Alonzo “Lon” Monk, Blagojevich’s first chief of staff. (Monk pleaded guilty last October to, among other things, a scheme to profit from state business deals.) Kelly seemed to have an uncanny knack for winning appointments to state boards and commissions for people he recommended, including some with ties to O’Hare Airport, where his company was still actively bidding on contracts. He often took private jet trips with Blagojevich and was privy to the administration’s most closely guarded secrets. Even staffers whose business it was to know felt out of the loop. “It was a closed circle,” says a second former senior Blagojevich aide.

This should sound familiar:

Despite all that, the former senior aide says he saw a passion in Kelly, as well as a genuine, if misguided, desire to do the right thing. “He was a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve and wanted to win and was doing everything he could for the cause,” he says. “He just lacked political judgment and very clearly lacked an understanding of where the lines were drawn and what’s OK and what’s not OK.”

Blagojevich alienated men with political knowledge and power as his money men became his inner circle, for reasons that are clear from a telling passage in Felsenthal’s 2003 profile, written when he was on top of the world:

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.”

Power may have corrupted Blagojevich, but it was a lack of it that finally did him in.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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