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Chicago Straight

The arrest of Governor Rod Blagojevich in December cast a shadowy light on the relationships among four leading players in the Illinois Democratic Party—Blagojevich, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod. The new president and his two aides would like to minimize their dealings with the disgraced ex-governor. But the record tells a more complex story

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In the days following his arrest on corruption charges last December 9th, Governor Rod Blagojevich did his best to appear busy. He visited his 16th-floor suite at the Thompson Center, once even showing up in a jogging outfit. He signed bills, issued press releases, expunged criminal records. And he hardly wasted an opportunity to sling mud at other local Democrats, taking particular delight in sullying the veneer of President-elect Barack Obama and his Chicago team headed for the White House.

“Give me a chance to call in witnesses like Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, who said there was nothing inappropriate in his conversations with me,” Blagojevich said on NBC’s Today show, during one in a round of interviews he gave in the weeks before he was ousted from office. “Give me a chance to bring in Valerie Jarrett,” now a White House senior adviser. When Greta Van Susteren of Fox News asked if he would try to call Obama as a defense witness, the governor replied, “I would not rule anything in or rule anything out.”

“His whole thing was—dirty everybody up, show that everybody’s just as dirty as him,” says one former aide to Blagojevich. “He never wanted to go down alone.”

Whether the ex-governor succeeds in soiling others will be determined in the coming months, as federal prosecutors press their case against him. An indictment handed down in April charged Blagojevich and a small circle of aides and colleagues with wide-ranging corruption, including the notorious effort to personally profit from filling Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. More charges may follow as the investigation continues.

At this writing, U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald had said nothing to implicate Obama or his aides in wrongdoing. Still, with at least 40 references to Obama and his associates in the original 76-page criminal complaint, the scandal has cast a shadowy light on the connections between Blagojevich, Obama, and Emanuel, whose careers often overlapped, and who all drew on the skills of David Axelrod, the architect of Obama’s Senate and presidential campaigns and now a White House senior adviser.

Understandably, the Obama camp has tried to downplay the connections, most notably with a report by the future White House counsel Greg Craig asserting that no one on the president-elect’s staff, including Obama, had “inappropriate discussions” with the governor about deals for the Senate seat. But the Craig report focused exclusively on Blagojevich’s alleged wheeling and dealing around the seat, and beyond that time frame, the interplay of Blagojevich, Obama, Emanuel, and Axelrod goes deep into the recent history of Illinois politics. None of those four principals would talk for this article, but interviews with three dozen sources and an examination of the record tell a complex story spun within a world where relationships are nuanced and, in some cases, baffling. For years, these four talented and ambitious men worked with and around each other. There are indications that Obama and Axelrod were wary of Blagojevich, though they never publicly broke with him. Until the arrest, Emanuel stayed in close contact with the governor—perhaps closer and longer than the Craig report indicated. As Blagojevich’s career tumbled, his jealousy of Obama grew. In all, the mix of alliances, deals, and resentments makes up a potent brew that could yet stain the White House.

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“I come out of the alleys of Chicago politics,” Blagojevich told a New York Times reporter on the January day he was removed from office. “That’s a tough place. The politics there is not motivated by idealism or high purpose. It’s nuts and bolts, and you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

Growing up in a small rented apartment near Cicero and Armitage on Chicago’s Northwest Side, Blagojevich was always something of a street-savvy operator, and politics was the great equalizer, the best chance for the son of a steelworker and a CTA ticket clerk to become a big shot. He saw his opening one night in March 1988, at a fundraiser for Alderman Dick Mell at Zum Deutschen Eck, the old German restaurant in Lake View. Bruce DuMont, the veteran radio host, recalls that Blagojevich, then 31, introduced himself and made small talk before asking, “Mr. DuMont, which one is Patti Mell?” DuMont pointed out the alderman’s 23-year-old daughter. She and Blagojevich married two years later.

Blessed with Alderman Mell’s imprimatur—and more significantly, his money, his connections, and his army of precinct workers—Blagojevich served two terms in the state legislature, then set his sights on the Fifth District congressional seat, which at the time was held by a Republican, Michael Flanagan. Blagojevich and Mell knew that the alderman’s 33rd Ward operation wouldn’t be enough to carry the much larger congressional district—a jagged, splinter-shaped area that spans miles from the lake to the western suburbs. So, they called David Axelrod.

A former political reporter at the Chicago Tribune, Axelrod left the paper in 1984 to work for Paul Simon’s U.S. Senate campaign, and by the early 1990s he had earned a name as “kingmaker” in local political circles, working for, among others, Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley. Blagojevich’s primary opponent, Nancy Kaszak, also sought out Axelrod’s services, recalls John Kupper, a partner in Axelrod’s former consulting firm. “We found Rod to be a more attractive and compelling personality,” says Kupper. Insiders recall the campaign as fun—nonstop sports talk, practical jokes, and Elvis Presley. “There was a lot to like about Rod,” says Peter Giangreco, a top consultant to Blagojevich’s congressional and gubernatorial campaigns. “He had a very ’85 Bears kind of feel about him, a very Chicago kind of thing.”

But along with the fun came conflict. “There was always a strain between Axelrod and Mell, particularly with regard to how money was spent and what the priorities were, what Rod should do,” recalls a second former Blagojevich aide. (Several of the former aides to Blagojevich, Obama, and Emanuel who were interviewed for this article did not want to be identified by name out of concern for their careers.) Mell, the old-school ward boss, preached that “yard signs win elections,” and he pushed for more cash for the ground game. Axelrod, the media guru, countered that to get to Congress you needed TV ads.

Meanwhile, Blagojevich and Mell were also at each other’s throats—explosive shouting matches, hanging up on each other’s phone calls, going days, sometimes weeks, without speaking. “They had a loving relationship, but it was love with knuckles, not with kisses,” says Giangreco. “Rod preferred to have people around him who didn’t call him on his shortcomings. And Dick did nothing but call him on his shortcomings.” 

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. And when Axelrod got word that a team at the Tribune was working on an investigative series on Mell (and, by extension, his young protégé, Blagojevich), the ex-Trib reporter complained vociferously. He argued, as the former city editor Hanke Gratteau recalls today, that the paper was “conducting the equivalent of a proctology exam” on Blagojevich. When the Tribune finally ran its story—a probing but not particularly hard-hitting portrayal of Mell that extolled Blagojevich as the “perfect candidate” with “good looks a soap opera star would envy”—some inside the newsroom suspected that Axelrod’s aggressive pushback had killed a tougher version. Gratteau told Crain’s Chicago Business, “The only thing he killed at the Tribune was his good name and reputation.”

Today, she is more circumspect. “From David’s perspective, it seemed like the might of the entire Tribune investigative team had been unleashed against a congressional candidate, just because of his connection to Dick Mell.”

At the time, Axelrod told Crain’s that he was willing to sacrifice his reputation to help his clients. Privately, he was less sure. “It was after that that Ax sort of felt like he didn’t want to be a part of this anymore,” recalls Giangreco. “He said to me, ‘You know what—I can’t keep putting my integrity on the line for this guy.’” Still, Axelrod stayed on as Blagojevich won the primary and general election.

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