Reporters examine rise and fall of Blagojevich

Reporters examine rise and fall of Blagojevich

Rod Blagojevich was elated when he was elected governor of Illinois in November 2002. All the hard work campaigning and all the fund-raising paid off when voters chose him to be the state's first Democratic governor in nearly 30 years.

"The mandate we claim today from the people of Illinois and for the people of Illinois is simple and clear — no more business as usual. I will tell it to you straight. I will give you my all. I will reach across party lines. I will seek out the best ideas. I will govern as a reformer," Blagojevich told a cheering crowd at his Springfield inaugural.

Behind the scenes, things were different. The first thing Blago did after his election was create a new position — deputy governor — and select campaign operative Douglas Scofield to fill it.

"You are in charge," Blago told Scofield.

What Blago meant was that Scofield was essentially running Illinois on a day-to-day basis. After winning election, Blago considered his work done.

"Rod saw his job as the guy running for office," one Blago associate recalled. "... So after the election, (Blago) basically viewed his job as being done until 2006."

What happened over the next six years would mark one of the strangest chapters in Illinois history: a detached governor who rarely came in to the office, endemic corruption that attracted FBI agents by the dozens, fiscal irresponsibility that pushed the state to the brink of insolvency and, finally and improbably, Blagojevich's arrest by federal investigators and impeachment by the Legislature.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the whole sorry story is laid out in "Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor's Office and Into Prison" by Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Coen and John Chase.

"Golden" is an interesting book, particularly for those who did not follow this long-running political soap opera. For those who did, the story, while not new, is a compendium of what happened and why.

More important, it's a grim reminder of just how vacuous and corrupt politics and government in Illinois can be. People really elected a guy like this governor? Sure did — twice.

That a character like Blago rose as high as he did — legislator, U.S. representative, governor — is a stunning indictment of voters' collective judgment. All he offered them was a smile and a shoeshine, and that's basically all voters sought.

They assumed there was substance with no evidence there was.

Blago remains a mysterious character. What was he thinking? What did he, if anything, want to do? Why did he run, and then why did he jeopardize not only his position but his liberty by participating in a variety of criminal schemes?

There are no clear answers in "Golden."

Blago grew up poor, one of two sons born to an immigrant family. He loved reading history, imagining that he, too, would someday become as celebrated as those whose stories he read.

He went to college and law school, sought out a powerful politician's daughter to marry and used the political base of his father-in-law, Chicago Aldlerman Richard Mell, to move up the ladder.

He showed real charm in his dealings with the public. He was, everyone seemed to agree, "likeable" — and indefatigable when campaigning or fund-raising.

But there was nothing to him. As a lawyer, he was a lightweight who didn't prepare and made up his arguments on the fly. He was an indifferent legislator bored by his responsibilities. As governor, he couldn't be bothered with the nuts and bolts of his job. His interests seemed to be limited to family, sports, jogging and reading.

Told of the necessity of meeting regularly with important members of his administration to set policy, Blago responded, "I don't need to do that."

Given this portrait, it's easy to see why so many people suggested he is mentally ill.

While the why is open to speculation, there's no doubt about what happened. After being elected governor, Blago crashed and burned. Obsessed with money — for personal use and campaign spending — he aligned himself with political insiders who used their access to power to enrich themselves. Together, they cooked up extortion schemes to sell political appointments and state contracts for millions of dollars.

It all fell apart when a Blago henchman, veteran political fixer Stuart Levine, tried to shake down a hospital executive who was seeking approval of a construction project by the state's Hospital Facilities Planning Board. She went to the FBI and, at its request, wore a wire during an incriminating conversation. Focusing more heavily on Levine, agents learned he was working closely with a crew of Blago associates, including Tony Rezko, William Cellini and Chris Kelly.

Soon, they were all under the microscope — and dropping like flies under federal indictment.

Almost everyone, it seems, around Blago was corrupt and either under indictment or about to be. The feds would have got to Blago in due time, but they rushed in December 2008 to make an arrest when they learned that a cash-desperpate Blago was planning to sell President Obama's former U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder, presumably U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

It was a scandal that put Illinois' culture of corruption under a national glare. Blago made things infinitely worse for everyone when he launched a coast-to-coast public relations campaign asserting, in the face of persuasive evidence to the contrary, that not only was he innocent but would never betray the public trust.

After his conviction, Blago was sentenced to 14 years in prison, a long time for a man in his early 50s with two young daughters. Irrepressible to the end, Blago flashed his smile and his charm right up to the moment he entered a federal prison in Colorado.

Thus ended the Blagojevich chapter of Illinois history. But the speculation about him will continue as long as people remember his name.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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