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Mr. Un-Popularity

By David Bernstein

Early on the January morning on which Rod Blagojevich was first sworn in as the 40th governor of Illinois, his father-in-law, the powerful Northwest Side alderman Richard Mell, was still hard at work on behalf of his protégé. In Springfield for the ceremony, Mell happened to spot his own picture on the front of a local weekly newspaper. The bold headline read: “The Governor in Law.”

Mell knew this could be trouble. “I went to every damn little store in Springfield I could see that had those things and scooped them in my trunk, ‘cause I knew that shit would drive him crazy,” Mell recalls. “Rod wanted everyone to think he got there on his own.”

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In fact, Mell had been widely credited as the chief architect of the Blagojevich campaign that ended in victory over Republican Jim Ryan, the state attorney general, in 2002. Early on, Mell pushed Blagojevich to amass a huge campaign war chest to scare off potential primary challengers. Then the alderman shrewdly predicted that Blagojevich’s strength lay Downstate and helped recruit Downstate party chairmen to support his son-in-law’s candidacy. Blagojevich ended up winning 55 percent of the Downstate primary vote, enough to squeak out a thin victory.

Mell insists that he largely kept his big ego in check during the campaign, but in the aftermath of the November election, he began to feel as if he were getting the cold shoulder from Blagojevich. His phone calls weren’t returned. He was left out of meetings. His nominees for state jobs got rejected. His advice was ignored.

Tempers flared outright a couple of months into Blagojevich’s term, over something seemingly trivial: office stationery. Mell’s office had printed Blagojevich’s name on the alderman’s 33rd Ward letterhead, an inappropriate link to the governor. Blagojevich was furious, but instead of calling Mell, he ordered one of his close advisers, Christopher Kelly, to handle it. Mell says Kelly summoned him to the East Bank Club and announced: “The governor’s really pissed off.” Asked why, Kelly shot back: “The stationery—it’s got his name on it!”

Recalling the incident today, Mell grows animated, and his voice rises: “He sends that asshole Kelly to reprimand me about stationery! He’s my son-in-law—pick up the goddamn telephone and call me.” Adding to Mell’s sense of insult, the governor’s office sent him a cease-and-desist letter. (Attempts to reach Kelly were unsuccessful.)

The breaking point in the deteriorating relationship between Mell and Blagojevich came several months later, in January 2005, after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency—acting on Blagojevich’s orders—temporarily shut down a Joliet landfill operated by Frank Schmidt, a distant cousin of Mell’s wife, Margaret. The governor’s office claimed it had acted after Blagojevich overheard at a family Christmas Eve dinner that Schmidt had been boasting to waste haulers that he had clout with the governor and Mell, and hence the haulers could dump illegal debris at his site without scrutiny from regulators. Schmidt denies saying any such thing. (A Cook County grand jury has been investigating whether Blagojevich’s administration abused its authority when it closed Schmidt’s landfill.)

Mell was vacationing with his wife in Florida when he got word about the landfill. “I’m just incensed this guy does this to me,” says Mell, who insists he had no financial stake in the landfill but was advising Schmidt. “[Blagojevich] throws me under the bus like that, puts me on the front page of the papers. That son of a bitch used me. He uses everybody and then discards ’em.”

 

Photoillustration: VibraCobradesign
Photography: (Dartboard) Jan Stromme/Getty Images, (Blagojevich) Jeff Sciortino

 

Why the sad face? We count a few of the ways in which things have gone sour for Governor Blagojevich: (from left) gross recipts tax defeat: 170-0; gridlock in Springfield; federal corruption probes

Rod Blagojevich has left a gubernatorial trail littered with other political casualties besides Mell. David Wilhelm served as chairman of Blagojevich’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign committee and his postelection transition team. Eventually he returned to the private sector as a lobbyist but continued to work closely with Blagojevich as an unofficial policy adviser. In 2005, however, not long after the landfill imbroglio between Mell and Blagojevich, Wilhelm left for his home state of Ohio, where today he runs two venture capital firms. Wilhelm insists he never had a falling-out, per se, with Blagojevich. Instead, he says, his departure was a “natural evolution. I’m a kind of campaign guy. The day the transition was over, my job was basically over.” Still, his abrupt exit took many local political observers by surprise. As one prominent Democratic fundraiser recalls, “People were really talking about this. First Rod has this falling-out with Mell. Then he has this falling-out, or whatever, with David. Suddenly it became like this Agatha Christie novel: ‘Who’s next?’”

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Take your pick. 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.”

In public, Blagojevich and the other Democratic leaders try to downplay the political bickering. Michael Madigan has chalked up the rumblings in Springfield to a case of “Democrats being Democrats.” But anger with Blagojevich crosses party lines. At least two Republican lawmakers have gone so far as to publicly call for his impeachment.

“I like being governor, but I have a confession to make,” Blagojevich told South Side churchgoers not long before his 2006 reelection. “I have fewer friends than I did four years ago. But I got elected to do things for people—not for other politicians—so that’s OK." 

Except that things aren’t OK these days for Blagojevich. He has clearly struck a nerve beyond the capitol. 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.

Miller points out that voters expect results, and the paralysis in Springfield has tried their patience. An oft-used axiom compares the unsightly process of lawmaking to that of sausage making: You don’t want to watch it happening. Yet in Illinois, the sausage isn’t even getting made, and that failure has left many people angry and disgusted.

In late October the state’s largest daily newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, ran a scathing and unprecedented editorial urging passage of a constitutional amendment allowing voters to recall state officials, specifically Blagojevich. (Like the Tribune, this magazine is owned by Tribune Company.) A statewide poll conducted shortly after the editorial ran found that a majority of Illinois voters questioned—51.9 percent—would recall Blagojevich if they could. Even 46.7 percent of those identified as Democrats favored his removal.

Given that the governor has spent much of his time in office fending off accusations of ethical irregularities within his administration, many of his former backers have distanced themselves from him. For example, Blagojevich was left off the speaker’s platform during Senator Barack Obama’s presidential announcement last February. “He’s Kryptonite,” says state representative Jack Franks, a Democrat from Woodstock, who is one of Blagojevich’s biggest critics. “Nobody wants to get near this guy.”

All of which raises the question: What the hell happened—how did things go so wrong?

Photography: (From left) AP Photo/Seth Perlman; AP Photo/Seth Perlman; AP Photo/Brian Kersey

 

 

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Over a span of six weeks I tried repeatedly to get Blagojevich to respond directly to this question but was rebuffed by his press secretary, Abby Ottenhoff, who said the governor was too busy to give an interview. But I interviewed more than 20 other people—from current and former members of the governor’s administration and his campaign staff to state lawmakers, Democratic benefactors and operatives, academics, pundits, and political prognosticators. My sources included both Blagojevich’s critics and supporters—yes, there are a few. (Many people asked not to be identified by name in the article because they wanted to avoid further conflict with Blagojevich or because they still had dealings with the governor.) Several people I spoke to resorted to colorful, four-letter language when describing the governor. The list of printable insults included “greedy,” “dumb,” “paranoid,” and “phony.” Even some of Blagojevich’s backers are befuddled by his behavior. “I like Rod personally,” says one supporter, a prominent Chicago businessman. “But he just hasn’t cut the mustard as a governor.”

Nearly everyone I spoke to agrees that Blagojevich is facing a career-threatening political crisis. Still, no consensus explanation emerges for his spectacular fall from grace, though several reasons were mentioned over and over. They are, in no particular order:

It’s the corruption, stupid! Despite Blagojevich’s repeated promises to “change business as usual” in Springfield—meaning, rid state government of pay-to-play politics—he has shown an inability or unwillingness to do so. On top of that, his own administration has been marred by alleged illegal hiring and political kickback scandals.

 


Blagojevich confers with senate president Emil Jones Jr., one of his few remaining political allies.

For Blagojevich—who once bragged that he was displaying “testicular virility” by standing up to Mell—all the withering criticism, negative newspaper headlines, and next-to-nothing approval ratings should feel like a kick to the groin. But if he’s fazed, he doesn’t show it. In public, he looks easygoing, unshaken, even self-assured. He still cracks jokes and smiles that big, toothy grin. There’s not a speck of gray in his perfectly coifed mane of dark hair. No weary saddlebags under his eyes. And nary a wrinkle on his baby face. Outwardly, he seems like a man without a care: the Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?” governor. Asked for his reaction to the Tribune’s recall editorial, for instance, Blagojevich glibly told reporters, “I take that as a very good sign.” He went on to compare himself to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was also frequently in the cross hairs of the Tribune’s conservative-leaning editorial board.

Blagojevich makes no apologies for his defiant style. “I worry about the end result,” he once said in an interview. “If I have to ruffle a few feathers along the way, so be it.” The governor chalks up his worsening approval ratings to the general political malaise. No matter what the polls or his critics say, he insists that he has accomplished a lot. His office e-mailed me a three-page list, which includes raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.50 per hour; increasing education funding by $6 billion, the most of any Midwestern state; expanding preschool enrollment; reducing mercury emissions at coal-fired power plants, with a goal of 90-percent reductions by 2009; converting the toll highway system to open road tolling; and providing health care insurance coverage for nearly 400,000 children and parents who lack it. All this, he touts, while keeping his first-term campaign pledge not to raise income or sales taxes.

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“If I were to just read the newspapers and go by the accounts in the media, I wouldn’t like him either,” says former state senator Carol Ronen, a longtime Blagojevich loyalist. “But if you get away from the drama and the covering of the political fights and look at what the governor’s accomplished, it’s pretty darn good.” State senator James DeLeo, another continuing Blagojevich ally, agrees: “They should be carrying him around on a chariot.”

Make that a tumbrel, say his many critics. Blagojevich’s tenure, they argue, has been a wasteland of political failures and embarrassments. Nothing significant has happened to resolve the state’s most urgent problems, including reforming the education system and school-funding practices; reducing state pension indebtedness; shoring up mass transit funding; and tightening campaign contribution laws.

Blagojevich’s opponents also argue that he has squandered progress on righting the state’s fiscal ship. Though he brags that he has eliminated the state’s multibillion-dollar deficit, his critics insist that he has merely postponed budget problems by selling bonds, raiding the public pension fund, and deferring Medicaid reimbursements. As a result, they claim, Illinois’s fiscal condition has deteriorated dangerously under his watch. And because Blagojevich has refused to raise sales and income taxes, lawmakers find themselves with few options to shore up the state’s finances or to pay for new schools, more health care, or Chicago Transit Authority improvements.

The governor’s critics also gripe that, for the fifth year in a row, Blagojevich and lawmakers have failed to pass a much-needed capital spending plan to fund big-ticket infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, and schools.

And then there are the corruption scandals that have touched his administration and shadowed him.

In all, his detractors say, the bill of particulars adds up to explain Blagojevich’s drubbing in the polls and the popular sentiment expressed by the Tribune’s editorial: “He is the governor who cannot govern.”

Photography: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

 

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Blagojevich, whose improbable political rise to the state’s top job is a tale worthy of a Charles Dickens novel. The son of an immigrant steelworker and a CTA ticket taker, Blagojevich, 51, grew up in a gritty neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side. As a youngster he shined shoes and delivered pizzas to help his family make ends meet. A mediocre student even by his own account—but a charmer fueled by ambition and scrappy street smarts—he got a law degree and through his father’s connections was hired as a legal clerk in the law office of Edward Vrdolyak, one of Chicago’s most powerful aldermen. Through a friend, he was hired as a traffic court prosecutor in the office of then Cook County state’s attorney Richard M. Daley.

In 1988, with politics on his mind, Blagojevich attended a fundraiser for Mell, where he asked a more politically connected friend to introduce him to the alderman’s 23-year-old daughter, Patti. They married two years later. Not long afterward, Mell recalls, Patti came to him and asked: “You know, Rod has always wanted to run for some office—do you think it’ll ever come up?” Opportunity knocked in 1992—right on Mell’s turf—and Blagojevich won a seat in the Illinois House. He served four years in Springfield and in 1996 was elected to U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski’s old congressional seat.

Over the years Blagojevich racked up campaign victories but few noteworthy political accomplishments. His most notable achievement came in 1999, when, as a congressman, he helped Rev. Jesse Jackson free three U.S. prisoners of war in Yugoslavia. “I think he got a post office named after a fallen police officer,” state representative John Fritchey says of Blagojevich’s résumé. “That’s about it.” In both Springfield and Washington, he earned a reputation as a friendly and outgoing legislator, but not a particularly serious one. During his first run for governor, Blagojevich was something of a political Zelig: a pretty-boy political lightweight reared in Chicago’s old-style wheeling-dealing ways, but a candidate who campaigned as a progressive populist and anticorruption activist. So when he was elected in 2002—the first Democrat in 26 years to win the governorship—no one was exactly sure what kind of governor he would turn out to be. But with Democrats controlling the executive mansion, both chambers of the General Assembly, and all but one of the state’s five constitutional offices, political observers figured: How bad could he be?

 

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The past year has been especially bleak. In January 2007, the freshly reelected governor began the legislative session gung ho to flex his political muscle. Right after election day he demanded that lawmakers pass a budget that included his multibillion-dollar universal health care plan, proposing to pay for it by levying a gross receipts tax on businesses—the largest tax increase in state history—and by selling off the state lottery and borrowing more from pension funds. Blagojevich didn’t get a single vote for the tax proposal in the Illinois House, which rejected it 107 to 0.

When Blagojevich tried but failed to persuade Mike Jacobs, the Democratic state senator, to support a face-saving vote on his health care plan, Jacobs says the governor “blew up like a ten-year-old” and threatened to ruin his political career. “I told him, ‘I’m your friend, but I can’t support you on this one.’ He stood up and said, ‘We’re never going to be friends. I will do everything in my power to make sure you don’t return to this building’"—meaning the statehouse. Jacobs told reporters at the time, “If this governor would have been in East Moline, Illinois, at one of my local taverns, I would’ve kicked his tail end.”

Throughout the record-length legislative session, the governor—who was all but AWOL from Springfield—lambasted lawmakers for not working hard enough and threatened a shutdown of state government if he didn’t get his way. At one point, he even sued Madigan because the Speaker told lawmakers to skip the special sessions the governor had called. (As of presstime, Blagojevich had ordered the legislature into special sessions 36 times since taking office, half the total number of such sessions called by all governors since 1970.) James DeLeo, the state senator, who has served in the statehouse for 22 years, says the mood in Springfield is downright depressing. “I’ve never seen it worse,” he says. “I get up in the morning and I drink Maalox.” The intraparty squabbling among Democrats is so rancorous that Tom Cross and Frank Watson, the two Republican leaders in the General Assembly, have had to play the role of peacekeepers.

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.”

The political squabbling has embarrassed the ruling Democratic Party, but more seriously it has left the state in terrible shape. Residents seem to blame Blagojevich. In a statewide poll conducted last summer, 53 percent of respondents said the governor was most at fault for the budget stalemate. Only 19 percent blamed the state legislature.

 "I think he’s being disproportionately blamed,” insists Ronen. “His tenacity and stubbornness sometimes isn’t always pretty, but that is how he has made change,” she adds, highlighting his accomplishments in expanding health care and preschool. Blagojevich stalwarts say the governor feels frustrated by what he considers to be a “do-nothing” General Assembly that consistently plays spoiler to his large-scale plans. “Some people think government shouldn’t do anything,” says Illinois senate president Emil Jones Jr., taking a thinly veiled swipe at Madigan. “That’s where the differences come in.”

The governor’s former inspector general said in a report that Blagojevich’s hiring practices showed “not merely ignorance of the law, but complete and utter contempt for the law.”

But the budget battle between Blagojevich and the legislature signals a deeper divide: The governor’s top priorities seem to be his alone. How else do you explain the 107-to-0 drubbing on the gross receipts tax? Or the flop of his proposals to sell off the state’s lottery, expand keno gambling into bars, and bail out the Chicago area’s cash-strapped mass transit system? Many Democratic lawmakers say fixing the state’s public education system, which relies too heavily on property taxes to fund schools, is their top priority, not universal health care, especially with the state so financially troubled. Yet Blagojevich refuses to abandon his pet initiatives. And when he doesn’t get his way, he has a penchant for publicly skewering his foes. He browbeat legislators a few years ago for spending like “drunken sailors” when they overturned his budget cuts. He called the State Board of Education a “Soviet-style bureaucracy” when he tried to take it over. One elected official described the governor’s certitude and self-righteousness as “almost a sickness.” In the fight over the gross receipts tax, for example, the governor tried to cast his critics as sinners. “This is more than a fight. This is a crusade,” he said during a public-relations blitz last spring. “It will be Armageddon, but we are on the side of the Lord and we will prevail.”

DeLeo argues that the governor feels in his heart that he is right. “I don’t think people understand how passionate and committed he is,” he says.

But Rich Miller says Blagojevich “believes so fervently he’s in the right that I don’t think he’s capable of understanding when people tell him he’s wrong.” If you don’t support his plan on, say, state-subsidized mammograms for women, then you’re for breast cancer. Or if you reject his education-funding initiatives, then you’re for dumb kids. “Rod has difficulty separating personal differences from the need to govern,” adds Fritchey, a former friend of Blagojevich’s who is now one of his loudest critics. “The role of governor is not that of the kid with the bat and ball who says, ‘If you don’t play by my rules, I’m taking my stuff and going home.’ That’s not how you govern. One does not govern by edict.”

A few people who work closely with Blagojevich’s office say they know that members of his staff have tried to get him to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric. But the governor shows no evidence of having a personality Plan B. “He can’t control himself,” says Miller. “I’ve heard people say that on his own staff.” A Democratic insider adds, “Rod sometimes just goes out of his way to have a fight, just because he can. It’s as though he relishes them.”

Those interviewed who know Blagojevich say the hot-tempered former Golden Gloves boxer has always had a penchant for fighting. It just wasn’t as obvious when he was an obscure state legislator and U.S. congressman with little influence. But even Blagojevich’s combativeness as governor has a lot of insiders shaking their heads in amazement. “Something happened to him after he won the [gubernatorial] primary,” says a prominent Democratic fundraiser, one of Blagojevich’s former friends. “I wish I could tell you what it was—I don’t think anyone has figured out what happened. It was like a personality change.”

The problem may come in part because Blagojevich grew up on Chicago politics. “He wants to govern like Daley,” says Miller, explaining that Blagojevich wants a legislature that is a rubber stamp, as the city council has been for much of the Daley era. “But you can’t automatically govern like Daley.” Miller says it took Daley years to build relationships with council members and establish his iron-tight grip on the chamber.

From the moment he took office, Blagojevich tried to exert more executive authority over state government, much to the chagrin of House Speaker Madigan, who has held the position since 1983 (except for a brief two-year period in the mid-1990s when Republicans captured his chamber).

Blagojevich’s go-it-alone approach worked for a while, as the Democratic rulers in the General Assembly more or less gave the newly elected governor and fellow Democrat leeway in his first year to pursue his political agenda. He even found a sympathetic ally in senate president Emil Jones Jr., who was often irritated by Madigan’s interference in his caucus.

Many political observers say the contentious budget battle in 2003 came as the tipping point. After the legislature had painstakingly negotiated and passed a budget agreement, Blagojevich turned around and vetoed millions of dollars from the state operating budget, including funding for a project he promised to lawmakers. Jacobs recalls how, earlier that year, Blagojevich had visited a school in his district and presented an oversize check for $13 million for school construction. The governor later vetoed funding for the project. “At some point, you gotta be straight with people,” Jacobs says.

“In Springfield, the budget is like a holy agreement, and it’s entirely based on trust,” Miller explains. “So when Rod decided he was going to break that agreement, it had a cataclysmic impact. The whole town has never been the same since.”

Distrust of Blagojevich became so deep after that episode that lawmakers publicly branded him a “liar” and likened him to a “used-car salesman.” And in an unprecedented move, they demanded that Blagojevich put any promises on paper in so-called memorandums of understanding.

In the meantime, Blagojevich often seemed more focused on a larger stage—pursuing what the Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin characterized as “ready-made campaign issues that have both local and national appeal, winning him face time on CNN, not merely the local news.” He railed against children’s access to violent games. He championed contraceptive rights—issuing an emergency order requiring all pharmacies in the state to fill prescriptions for morning-after pills. He created a program for Illinois residents to buy cheaper prescription medicines from Canada and Europe. And during the nationwide shortage of flu vaccine in 2004, he defied the Food and Drug Administration’s warning and ordered more than 250,000 doses from overseas drug wholesalers. (The FDA later barred Illinois from importing the vaccine, and $2.6 million in unused doses were eventually donated to earthquake survivors in Pakistan.)

Blagojevich’s critics complain that he would rather appeal to voters over the heads of legislators and promote himself than do the legislative dealing to pass real policies. It’s as if he’s in a continual campaign mode, they say—holding news conferences on slow news days to announce grandiose ideas that are quixotically appealing but have little chance of ever becoming law. Kent Redfield, a political studies professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says Blagojevich never made a smooth transition from being a no-namer among 435 legislators in Congress to being the leader. “Governing is a process that survives on compromise,” Redfield says, adding that Blagojevich “has gone out of his way to thumb his nose at that.”

 

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At times Blagojevich seems to broadcast his disdain for his colleagues. Lawmakers are galled by how little time he spends at the statehouse—and their feelings aren’t soothed by knowing that he’s often absent from his Chicago office in the Thompson Center, too. “He governs out of his house or out of his campaign office,” says Fritchey. “That’s an odd way to govern.” In late November, CBS–Channel 2 captured politically embarrassing footage of Blagojevich watching a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game at the United Center while lawmakers were in Springfield, on the governor’s orders, voting on his emergency bill to bail out the CTA, Metra, and Pace. The measure fell 14 votes short. Infuriated lawmakers demanded that Blagojevich reimburse the $5,800 it costs to use a state plane to shuttle him roundtrip from Springfield to Chicago.

People who know Blagojevich well say part of the trouble comes from being an introvert in an extrovert’s business. “You wouldn’t know it if you see him,” says one former staffer, “but you practically have to push him out the door to do things.” What’s worse, he’s chronically and unapologetically late—for campaign events, for meetings, even for church—an annoying character flaw that some have dubbed “Rod Time.”

People were aghast, for instance, when Blagojevich showed up half an hour late to the funeral of state senator Vince Demuzio, a popular and venerable lawmaker who once chaired the state’s Democratic Party. In Blagojevich’s absence, Lieutenant Governor Quinn was called on to present Demuzio’s widow with the ceremonial flag that had been draped on her husband’s casket.

The prominent Democratic fundraiser and former friend of the governor’s recalls how Blagojevich arrived more than an hour and a half late for a weekday lunchtime event the fundraiser had organized for about 100 donors at a downtown restaurant. The lunch was scheduled to start at noon. By one o’clock, the fundraiser recalls, guests started leaving to go back to work. Shortly past one-thirty, he says, the governor finally arrived, but half the crowd had gone. Blagojevich had been only six blocks away. “He was late because he was at another event and he has the attitude like, ‘People just wait for me,’” the fundraiser says. 

The governor’s strange behavior has been fertile ground for local armchair psychologists. Last summer, the downstate newspaper the Peoria Journal Star declared that the governor was “going bonkers.” Privately, a few people who know the governor describe him as a “sociopath,” and they insist they’re not using hyperbole. State representative Joe Lyons, a fellow Democrat from Chicago, told reporters that Blagojevich was a “madman” and “insane.” “He shows absolutely no remorse,” says Jack Franks, the Democratic state representative. “I don’t think he gives a damn about anybody else’s feelings. He tries to demonize people who disagree with him; he’s got delusions of grandeur.”

Miller points out that people shouldn’t blame Blagojevich’s lousy governing skills on his personality alone: “You can be insane—totally whacked out psychologically—and be a good governor or a good president.”

Some people think that the governor’s behavior has turned more erratic in the past few years. One reason, they suspect, could be Barack Obama’s extraordinary rise. “Obama’s ascendancy had a significant impact on this guy,” says a Democratic lawmaker from Chicago. “Here’s a lifelong plan that’s been unfolding better than anyone could ever script—an unremarkable state’s attorney becomes an unremarkable state representative, becomes an unremarkable congressman, becomes an unlikely governor. My God, everything’s falling into place! All of a sudden the proverbial skinny guy with the funny name starts making some headway, decides to run for U.S. senator, wins the primary, then gets tapped to do the keynote speech [at the Democratic National Convention]. Knocks the fucking thing out of the park. So now when political people coast to coast talk about Illinois, they talk about Barack Obama. They don’t give a fuck about Rod Blagojevich.” (Blagojevich, like nearly every other Democratic elected official in the state, endorsed Obama in the presidential primary.)

 

 

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From our November 2003 issue: When things were going well for Rod Blagojevich

A more compelling explanation for the governor’s escalating antics may be the pressure he is feeling from three years of federal probes into allegations that his top aides traded state business and jobs for political support for Blagojevich.

In October 2006, Antoin Rezko, a North Shore businessman who was a close friend and adviser to the governor, was charged with seeking to extort millions of dollars from investment firms looking to do business with Blagojevich’s administration. The feds have argued that Rezko sought kickbacks to the governor’s campaign funds and money for himself. Stuart Levine, another politically connected businessman whom Blagojevich reappointed to the state teachers’ retirement system and hospital oversight boards, and Joseph Cari Jr., a once prominent lawyer and Democratic fundraiser, admitted to being part of the scheme, which U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has called “pay-to-play on steroids.”

Thus far, the governor has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has called the accusations “triple hearsay.” In late December, however, court documents filed by prosecutors in preparation for Rezko’s February trial place Blagojevich close to the alleged pay-to-play schemes. According to the 78-page summary of evidence filing, “Public Official A"—widely believed to be Blagojevich—told Levine and Cari, in separate conversations, that he could get them state business in exchange for campaign donations. “You stick with us and you will do very well for yourself,” Blagojevich was quoted as telling Levine, who is cooperating with the prosecutors in the Rezko case. Prosecutors allege that the governor also suggested to Cari that he “could award contracts, legal work, and investment banking to help with fundraising.”

Also in December, another key friend and fundraiser for the governor, Christopher Kelly, a South Side roofer, was indicted on 12 counts of tax evasion related to his roofing business, which has received lucrative state and city contracts. Kelly insists he is innocent, and he has not been charged in the federal corruption probe of the governor’s administration. But federal prosecutors are continuing to look into whether Rezko and Kelly traded jobs and appointments for campaign contributions to Blagojevich.

In another indictment arising from the federal corruption probe, P. Nicholas Hurtgen, a former investment banker, allegedly told the CEO of a hospital that “Public Official A” (Blagojevich) wanted hospital projects steered to a preferred contractor as a reward for a political contribution. It was “all about the money,” the official allegedly said. The governor’s former inspector general, Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott, condemned Blagojevich’s hiring practices in a 2004 report, saying his administration’s efforts to skirt state hiring laws reflected “not merely an ignorance of the law, but complete and utter contempt for the law.” Scott’s report charged that Blagojevich’s patronage chief, Joe Cini, who is also under federal scrutiny, rigged job descriptions and credentials that allowed him to place applicants in jobs that were, by law, supposed to be free of political influence.

Over the years Blagojevich has claimed—sometimes indignantly—that he has done nothing wrong. He blames the scandals on “a few bad apples who violated the rules” and who deceived him. But many observers aren’t buying Blagojevich’s professed cluelessness.

And according to news reports, investigators have also widened their probe into the governor’s personal life. They have been looking into the mysterious $1,500 check that Blagojevich’s longtime friend Michael Ascaridis gave to the governor’s then seven-year-old daughter, Amy, right around the time Ascaridis’s wife received a state job. The U.S. attorney’s office is also reportedly looking into Patti Blagojevich’s questionable real-estate deals with big contributors to her husband and state contractors. The First Lady, who has been a licensed real-estate broker and appraiser for 15 years, has received more than $200,000, by the Tribune’s count, from key political supporters, fundraisers, and state contractors. Two of them, Rezko and Anita Mahajan—who owned a now-defunct drug-testing company that allegedly bilked the state of $2 million—have been indicted.

Over the years Blagojevich has claimed—sometimes indignantly—that he has done nothing wrong. He blames the scandals on “a few bad apples who violated the rules” and who deceived him. But many observers aren’t buying Blagojevich’s professed cluelessness.

Several people speculate that Blagojevich had been well aware, early on, of the shenanigans taking place inside his administration. “I don’t think Rod wanted to know the details,” says Mell.  He adds, “I’m not saying they did anything illegal. I’m saying it might look illegal.”

Most people say that even if Blagojevich is being truthful about not knowing of any wrongdoing, he should have known enough to keep his fundraisers out of the governor’s office. Blagojevich, says Fritchey, “had at his disposal some very good policy people. They didn’t become his inner circle; his fundraisers did. At that point, all bets are off.” For much of Blagojevich’s gubernatorial tenure, his inner circle has consisted of fundraisers/friends, such as Kelly and Rezko, as well as a small coterie of former campaign advisers turned lobbyists. Kelly and Rezko, for example, vetted candidates for state jobs, often top administration posts. Coincidentally they raised millions from the appointees.

The Democratic fundraiser and former friend of the governor’s says other longtime political fundraisers were shocked that Kelly, in particular, had such a prominent role in the governor’s administration: “Who was this guy? Suddenly he’s chairman of the finance committee. It’s like he dropped out of the sky.”

The governor’s defenders say he was duped. “There’s a lot of deception in this business, and you gotta be real careful who you surround yourself with,” says DeLeo. Still, says a former senior staffer in the governor’s office, Blagojevich, Kelly, and Rezko were “in touch every waking minute. Proving it in a court of law is another thing.”

 

 

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From our November 2003 issue: When things were going well for Rod Blagojevich

Nowadays, says Alderman Mell, when he sees friends around city hall or in Springfield they’ll sometimes tease him about his role in promoting Blagojevich’s career: “Here comes Dr. Frankenstein,” they’ll say. “He created the monster.” Mell usually pastes on a smile and makes a wisecrack. But he says his fight with Blagojevich is no laughing matter: “It’s not a happy life right now.” People who know Mell say he doesn’t see his grandchildren as much since the family feud erupted. Even the death of his wife, Margaret, a year ago has not healed the family rift.

Blagojevich has not announced whether he will seek a third term in 2010. He continues to raise money for reelection, albeit not at the fast and furious pace of his previous two campaigns. By the end of June, the last filing period before presstime, Blagojevich had raised $374,352 but spent $767,551, leaving just $283,782 in his campaign coffers, according to state election records. Blagojevich’s expenses included, most notably, $163,770 in legal fees paid to Winston & Strawn. His campaign has doled out more than $1.1 million altogether to law firms, reportedly mostly for legal work related to the investigations into wrongdoing by his administration.

With the broken political relationships and the lingering legal threats, much of the state’s political establishment seems to be treating Blagojevich as if he’s already a lame duck.

Rich Miller refers to Blagojevich’s gubernatorial rule, jokingly, as the “Seinfeld Administration” because the creators of the TV sitcom had a philosophy of “No hugs, and no lessons learned.” He says: “The governor never grows, and he never learns.”

Nowadays, says Alderman Mell, when he sees friends around city hall or in Springfield they’ll sometimes tease him about his role in promoting Blagojevich’s career: “Here comes Dr. Frankenstein,” they’ll say. “He created the monster.”

Political insiders say there’s no shortage of Democrats eyeing the governor’s job. Any of the five Democratic constitutional officers, insiders say, would likely jump at the chance to upgrade to his office. Serious water cooler talk has also swirled lately around Obama, if he loses his presidential bid. “In Obama’s camp, they’re only talking about him running for president,” says a well-informed political fundraiser. “But door number two is the governor, and, trust me, a ‘Draft Obama for Governor’ movement is being discussed everywhere amongst the inner sanctum of the Democratic Party in Illinois. It’s his for the taking.”

Still, political watchers say Blagojevich should not be underestimated. “The office of governor has a lot of power in Illinois,” says Redfield. “And as long as he’s governor, he’ll continue to be a relevant actor.” He’s won every election he’s ever entered. He’s a masterful retail campaigner who has a special knack for working a room. And, of course, he’s a prodigious fundraiser. Says former state treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, who lost to Blagojevich in the 2006 gubernatorial election, “If he ran in the next election, and he pumped $40 million into slick TV ads, he’d win again.”

Not if Mell can help it, say people who know him. Mell’s friends say he’ll do whatever he can to make sure Blagojevich does not win again. They say he’s enamored of state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and would likely back the 31-year-old former semipro basketball player and Obama protégé should he take a shot at the governor’s office.

Mell won’t say whom he plans to support in the next gubernatorial election. But he adds that Blagojevich has not lived up to expectations. “I really liked Rod,” Mell says. “I thought there was great promise for Rod. I thought he could be the president. He went askew somewhere. Something happened—the power, or whatever. I don’t know.”