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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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Clockwise, from left: Axelrod, Blagojevich, Burris, Emanuel, Rezko, Obama, Mell, and Jones


To some colleagues, Blagojevich seemed bored on Capitol Hill. Schakowsky recalls that he regularly blew off caucus meetings and subcommittee hearings, and behind closed doors he would often complain about the congressional leadership. “Rod has this incredible anti-authoritarian streak in him,” says Schakowsky. “No one was going to tell him what to do: not the speaker of the Illinois House, not the leader of our party in the U.S. House, Dick Gephardt, nobody. He had all kinds of things to say even about Bill Clinton, the president.”

Shortly after Blagojevich was reelected for his third congressional term in November 2000, he and Mell started eyeing a run for the governor’s office in 2002. Until then, Axelrod had remained an indispensable adviser but he had misgivings about a gubernatorial run and advised Blagojevich not to fritter away a good thing—he could be Congressman for Life. Blagojevich wanted no part of that. He saw Congress as a backwater.

For months, Blagojevich pressed Axelrod to come on board his campaign for governor. Axelrod refused to commit. He had other clients weighing gubernatorial bids, and Bill Daley, the younger brother of Axelrod’s close friend the mayor, was talking about running. But even after Daley and the Axelrod clients all passed up the race, the back-and-forth between Blagojevich and Axelrod continued. Several associates of Axelrod’s say he worried about Blagojevich’s prospects. The state had been rocked by scandals involving the Republican governor George Ryan, and Axelrod thought that the former schools chief, Paul Vallas, who was considering a run as a Democrat, would be a more credible “reformer” than the son-in-law of a ward boss. 

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. Adds Giangreco: “There was really a brotherly and affectionate relationship, but Ax just got worn down with everything that came along with being around Rod. And, in fact, what he said to me was, ‘I’m just too close to the guy.’”             

* * *

One summer day in 2001, Blagojevich went jogging around his Ravenswood Manor neighborhood. Afterward, he called a colleague. “Guess what?” Blagojevich asked him. “I just ran by Rahm Emanuel’s house. There he was, and we started talking. I told him I was definitely running for governor, and I said, ‘Rahm, you should run for my seat.’”                

What Blagojevich didn’t tell Emanuel was that he had offered similar advice to several other prospects who lived in the district. Truth be told, Blagojevich didn’t really care if Emanuel succeeded him or not. (He didn’t much care if the Fifth Congressional District even existed after he gave up the seat, according to a former aide to Emanuel with knowledge of Blagojevich’s dealings. Blagojevich and Mell undertook a failed attempt to reapportion the seat out of existence in return for gubernatorial endorsements from the two downstate Democratic congressmen, whose seats would be spared.)

The 2002 Fifth District Democratic primary settled into a contest between Emanuel and Nancy Kaszak, making her second try. Even with an enviable political resumé that included time in the Clinton White House, Emanuel was actually considered the slight underdog, so he brought in his longtime friend David Axelrod as chief strategist. The two had first worked together on Paul Simon’s Senate race in 1984, and, together in that race with David Wilhelm and Forrest Claypool, they formed a tight bond over progressive politics and killer instincts. Like competitive siblings, Emanuel and Axelrod would occasionally butt heads. “It was more intellectual combat, but with no hard feelings,” says the former Emanuel aide.           

As the congressional race unfolded, Blagojevich offered to support Emanuel, if Emanuel would endorse him for governor, according to the former aide to Emanuel. By this account Blagojevich mostly hoped that Emanuel would get his pal Mayor Daley to join the Blagojevich camp. Emanuel declined to trade endorsements—“Rahm felt strongly that we just wanted to run our race,” says the aide—and Daley ended up staying out of the gubernatorial primary fray. In the end, Emanuel easily prevailed over Kaszak in the primary and then cruised to a general-election victory against a token Republican opponent.

Beyond occupying the same political geography and sharing a proclivity for profanity, Blagojevich and Emanuel had little in common. Emanuel, the brainy, overachieving son of a pediatrician, grew up in Wilmette and belonged to the Paul Simon progressive wing of the state’s Democratic Party—a rather antiseptic counterpart to Blagojevich’s ward-based background. At times in private conversations, Blagojevich would ridicule Emanuel as the “ballet dancer,” riffing on the fact that Emanuel once studied ballet. At the same time, Blagojevich also had grudging respect for Emanuel. He knew that Emanuel was a shrewd political tactician and money wrangler with a thick Rolodex. “Rahm was a nut-cutter, a tough guy, and he could raise a lot of cash,” explains Giangreco. Indeed, Blagojevich complained that Emanuel didn’t do enough to raise money for him. The fundraising issue comes up in the federal indictment released in April. The document charges that, in 2006, Blagojevich tried to extort Emanuel by holding up a $2 million state grant for the Chicago Academy, a public school in Emanuel’s district, unless Emanuel’s brother Ari, a big-time Hollywood agent, held a fundraiser for the governor. (The fundraiser was never held, and it’s not clear whether the Emanuels knew about the alleged scheme.)

For his part, Emanuel didn’t care much for Blagojevich, but associates say Emanuel stayed practical. “Rod was the governor—so it’s smarter to have a relationship than not,” says Giangreco. “It was a political friendship, purely political.”

Over time, the two got a bit chummier. One of their most striking (and disastrous) collaborations came with the I-SaveRx program, a plan to import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and Europe, in defiance of a federal law. Emanuel seized on the idea as a hot-button populist issue, but the legislation went nowhere in Congress. So Emanuel devised a plan to open up a new battlefront in the states, beginning with his home state. “Rahm saw an opportunity,” says a third former Blagojevich aide familiar with the initiative. “He knew Rod would be a willing partner, someone who would push the envelope.” Blagojevich made the plan a centerpiece of his agenda—even after it was declared illegal by the Food and Drug Administration and the state’s auditor general. Blagojevich’s flouting of the law and the waste of state money on the scheme later became a charge in the impeachment case against him.

Emanuel has not spoken publicly about the I-SaveRx debacle, but Blagojevich has, most notably in his closing argument at his impeachment trial: “If you’re impeaching me on providing safe and affordable prescription drugs by going to Canada and getting the same medicines made by the exact same companies, then . . . let’s demand that President Obama fire Rahm Emanuel because Rahm Emanuel was the one who gave me this idea.”

Over time, Emanuel struck up a friendly relationship with a close Blagojevich associate, the lobbyist John Wyma, once Blagojevich’s congressional chief of staff. Besides lobbying for clients such as AT&T, Harrah’s, and Kraft, Wyma was a prodigious Democratic fundraiser. In December, the Associated Press reported that Wyma’s clients had contributed more than $100,000 to Emanuel’s congressional campaigns and causes and $445,000 to Blagojevich’s gubernatorial races.

In January, the Sun-Times reported that Emanuel called Wyma in the days after the presidential election with a message for Blagojevich: Obama would not offer anything but “appreciation” in return for the appointment of an Obama favorite to the vacated Senate seat. It is unclear why Emanuel contacted Wyma rather than Blagojevich or the governor’s chief of staff, John Harris. At the time, unbeknownst to Blagojevich, Wyma had turned against him, secretly providing information to federal investigators about the governor’s alleged pay-to-play schemes.

The relationship between Emanuel and Wyma could turn out to be a crucial missing link to knowing the full extent of Emanuel’s role in Blago-gate. As the third Blagojevich aide puts it: “Wyma was the bridge between Rod and Rahm.” (Repeated calls to Wyma were not returned.)

* * *

Barack Obama never got as close to Blagojevich as Emanuel did. In fact, when Blagojevich first ran for governor in 2002, Obama supported Roland Burris in the primary, standing and cheering on the porch of the Burris home in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood on a rainy Sunday afternoon in September 2001 when Burris announced his run. It wasn’t that Obama was a tried-and-true supporter of Burris; the two hardly knew each other. Obama had no other choice, politically speaking.

Since getting creamed by Bobby Rush in a run for Congress the previous year, Obama had been taking pains to mend fences with the city’s black leadership. He had been thinking about running for the U.S. Senate, and he knew he couldn’t do it without the support of black voters, who typically account for about a quarter of the vote in a statewide Democratic primary. Endorsing one of Burris’s white opponents, Paul Vallas or Blagojevich, would have ended Obama’s political career.

By several accounts, Obama didn’t play much of a role in the Burris campaign, which ended with Burris finishing a distant third in the primary. Ever the loyal Democratic warhorse, Burris endorsed Blagojevich in the general election and urged Obama to back Blagojevich as well. “When Blagojevich beat me, I told Barack to get on board with him,” Burris told the  Washington Post last December. “It was kind of like swallowing his pride a little bit, because [Obama] didn’t really see that they had anything in common.”

If Obama was uneasy about backing Blagojevich, he didn’t sound like it during an appearance on the local public-access program Public Affairs that summer: “Right now, my main focus is to make sure that we elect Rod Blagojevich as governor . . . ,” Obama said to Jeff Berkowitz, the show’s host. 

Berkowitz interrupted him. “You working hard for Rod?” he said, sounding surprised.

“You betcha,” Obama replied.

“Hot Rod?” Berkowitz asked again.

“That’s exactly right.”

This past July—when Blagojevich’s legal troubles were well known, but five months before he was arrested—Emanuel told The New Yorker that he and Obama, along with the campaign cochair David Wilhelm and another unnamed aide, were the top strategists of Blagojevich’s 2002 gubernatorial run. Emanuel described participating in “a small group that met weekly,” adding, “We basically laid out the general election, Barack and I and these two.”

A Blagojevich spokesman confirmed Emanuel’s account for the magazine, though the assertion puzzled some politicos. In the same article David Wilhelm said that his old friend Emanuel had exaggerated. Rich Miller, who writes the newsletter/blog Capitol Fax, looked into the dispute and found that Emanuel was hastily running away from his claim. He gave Miller a terse statement: “David [Wilhelm] and I have worked together on campaigns for decades. Like always, he’s right and I’m wrong.”

Several other Blagojevich campaign staffers also report that Obama and Emanuel did not play significant roles in the 2002 race. One of those staffers says that Obama’s participation was “on par, if not less so than other elected officials who came by the office.” Emanuel was somewhat more involved, by these accounts, and played the part of Blagojevich’s Republican opponent, Jim Ryan, as the candidate prepared for the gubernatorial debates. But Emanuel was smack in the middle of his own congressional race.

In any case, Blagojevich didn’t need much help, let alone from a little-known state senator from Hyde Park. He had a large lead in the polls and money was pouring in. His campaign coffers flush with cash, Blagojevich probably paid little notice to two checks—one for  $2,000, and the second, for $1,000—that Obama’s campaign fund gave Blagojevich shortly before the election.

Privately, Blagojevich considered Obama an overeducated elitist, a symbol of his neighborhood. “There are two places that you don’t want to be from if you wanted to curry favor with Rod Blagojevich—the North Shore or Hyde Park,” says Giangreco. “He despised people from either place.”

On the other hand, on the few occasions when their paths crossed, Obama came away impressed with Blagojevich’s political skills—his talent for churning out charm, his memory for names and faces. At the time, Obama was still trying to find his political groove. He was often stiff and wonkish, and he was uncomfortable with the folksy grip-and-grin style of politics that Blagojevich could do in his sleep. “Rod’s style did influence Barack’s style, because he saw the importance of one-on-one retail campaigning,” says Dan Shomon, Obama’s Springfield aide. “Nobody could work a room like Rod. [Obama] saw that and mentioned it . . . and over time his style changed.”             

Obama noted, for example, how Blagojevich used humor to overcome the handicap of a difficult name. Early on in his U.S. Senate race in 2004, Obama would often refer to himself as “the skinny guy with a funny name,” and he told his audiences: “There are some who might say that somebody named Barack Obama can’t be elected senator in the state of Illinois. They’re probably the same folks who said that a guy named Rod Blagojevich couldn’t be elected governor of the state of Illinois.”

Shomon says Obama also took note of Blagojevich’s extraordinary fundraising prowess—he collected a jaw-dropping $58.3 million during his two gubernatorial campaigns, more than a third of which came from 435 donors who gave $25,000 or more, according to the nonprofit group the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “I think Barack learned from that,” Shomon says. “I think it gave Barack a certain confidence, because nobody had done that in Illinois before Rod.”

Shomon, now a lobbyist based in Chicago, recalls observing Blagojevich in action: “One guy—I’m not gonna say who—was having a fundraiser, and Rod said, ‘I want you to raise me 40 [thousand].’ Rod calls him about a week before the fundraiser and says, ‘How’re you doing on that fundraiser?’ The guy said, ‘I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna make 40.’ And Rod said, ‘That’s not enough. You can do 70. Get me 70.’”

Over time, Shomon says, he saw a similar aggressiveness in Obama: “If somebody said, ‘Barack, I can do five’ [as in, $5,000]. He’d say, ‘I want you to feel a little pain and do ten.’ He’d actually use those words.” 
With Blagojevich’s easy victory in November, a Democrat reclaimed the Illinois governor’s office after 26 years in the hands of Republicans. “Tonight, Illinois has voted for change,” Blagojevich told the jubilant crowd of supporters who packed the room at A. Finkl & Sons on election night.

But when U.S. senator Dick Durbin met with the new governor in his office two months or so after the election, he says he didn’t exactly see a genuine change agent. “He was excited about filling jobs and contracts,” recalls Durbin. “That stopped me cold. I remember, he said to me, ‘It’s all good.’ He kept saying it over and over—‘It’s all good.’”

* * *

Photography: Chicago Tribune photos by (Mell) Scott Strazzante, (Axelrod) Zbigniew Bzdak, (Rezko) Charles Cherney, (Blagojevich) Scott Strazzante, (Emanuel) Pete Souza, (Burris) David Pierini, (Jones) Jose More, (Obama) AP photo/Gerald Herbert



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