How Did Illinois End Up With Rod Blagojevich, Anyway?
I can't tell you how many times I've heard this question asked:
It's worth taking a look back at the Tribune's 2002 endorsement. They endorsed Jim "Not George, Not Related to Him Either, Dammit" Ryan, but it came with a massive grain of salt:
The Tribune did not endorse Ryan in the Republican primary. Six years ago, this newspaper was harshly critical of his handling of the prosecution of former Death Row inmates Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, who were ultimately acquitted in the murder of a little girl. That history weighed heavily in the decision on whether to endorse him today.
His handling of the Cruz and Hernandez case, particularly his office's failure to aggressively pursue credible evidence that another man committed the crimes, are still cause for profound concern. Ryan's steadfast claim that "I made the best decision possible with the evidence I had at the time" remains unsatisfying.
On this issue, though, voters must make this decision: whether to look to the past or look to the future. There is evidence that Ryan has reflected on the past, and learned from it. Ryan has supported the state's moratorium on capital punishment, and has acknowledged that the criminal justice system must be repaired before that moratorium can be lifted.
Compare that to how Blagojevich is described in the same endorsement:
Blagojevich worked briefly as a prosecutor in Cook County. He was put on the city payroll, although there are questions as to how much work he actually did. He spent four years in the Illinois General Assembly, where he might best be remembered for voting against legislation that led to the revolution in the academic and financial performance of the Chicago public schools. Even today Blagojevich says he would vote again to defeat that school reform law--he incorrectly dismisses it as an "unfunded mandate."
He has been in Congress for the last six years, where he can claim credit for no significant legislative achievements. Blagojevich was asked recently by the Tribune to name the most difficult decision he has had to make in public life. His answer: whether to accompany Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1999 on a trip to meet Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia. Jackson negotiated the release of three U.S. servicemen on that trip. Blagojevich appeared over his shoulder at the televised press briefings.
So your options, in 2002, were:
1. A candidate from a troubled state Republican party who was perhaps best known for his involvement in a headline-making case of law enforcement error and, many believed, substantial prosecutorial overreach, running in a post death-penalty-moratorium election (and who through no fault of his own happened to share the last name of the future convicted felon he was replacing);
2. A friendly guy who promised the moon and, perhaps by dint of not really doing much of anything, hadn't really done anything to upset anyone.
And keep in mind: Blagojevich was really, really good at campaigning. The same unflappable demeanor and attraction to the spotlight that seems slightly insane in exile works very well on the stump:
Life could not be better. He loves politics, and he has won every election he has entered-first for the state legislature in 1992, where he stayed until 1997; then when he moved up to the U.S. Congress. Last year, he confounded the pundits by becoming the first Democrat since 1972 to win the governorship. He does seem a natural, with his high-energy style and his gift for connecting with voters, remembering not only their names but also the details of their lives. He denies it, but friends say he intends to run for President in 2008, and they point to his Hollywood jaunt as a way to build his nest egg. Once, riding in a limousine with Bill Clinton, Blagojevich had asked, "What made you think you could win in '92 against Bush and all those big names?" The President said he knew that if he "got the politics right," his opponents would fall by the wayside. Today, Blagojevich acknowledges that Clinton was his model in the gubernatorial race.
Now, 2006? That really is a mystery to me.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune