Who says Illinois politics is a tough business? The trial of Rod Blagojevich shows that even a foul-mouthed clotheshorse can be elected to the state's highest office. Twice.
Wiretap tapes played in court portray Blagojevich as dim and lazy. He was so disconnected that he had never heard of the United Way. He was so detached from his job that it was a big deal for him to spend eight hours at the office — eight hours a week, that is. This is a guy so strange that even Joan Rivers thought he was full of it.
Anyone who knows Blagojevich only from his reality TV appearances or the obscenity-laced recordings played at his trial must be asking a fundamental question: How did this guy ever win two terms as governor?
The answer is an only-in-Illinois mix of luck, skill, blind partisanship, scandal fatigue and the power of money.
Blagojevich was a little-known three-term congressman from Chicago when he ran for governor in 2002. He was politically astute enough to see that in a Democratic primary crowded with Chicagoans, voters in the rest of the state were the key to victory. He struck alliances with downstate leaders and courted voters energetically.
And, in a tactic that would reappear in later elections, he sullied the reputation of his chief rival. He portrayed Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas, known for his innovation and effectiveness, as a corrupt bureaucrat who wasted taxpayer money.
Blagojevich won the primary, and that's where his good luck kicked in.
He was running for the office being vacated by Republican Gov. George Ryan, who was mired in scandal. The Republican nominee turned out to be Jim Ryan, who had no particular link to the incumbent but still shared a last name and party affiliation. That was enough to sink Jim Ryan with an electorate itching for change.
Blagojevich was elected, the first Illinois Democrat to win a governor's race since 1972, and immediately began practicing his own brand of leadership.
He clashed with legislators, even publicly mocking them at times. His agency directors began shuffling money from one department to another with little regard to rules or budgets. He launched programs that had been rejected by lawmakers and, no matter how much the state budget crumbled, refused to consider raising income taxes.
Blagojevich also began a series of shady maneuvers that made headlines and caught the eye of federal prosecutors, like giving state jobs and contracts to campaign donors.
As the 2006 election approached, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald publicly confirmed Blagojevich was under investigation. Blagojevich fundraiser and political adviser Antoin "Tony" Rezko was indicted less than a month before the election.
Voters couldn't claim ignorance this time, yet Blagojevich won a second term, with nearly as many votes as he had gotten four years earlier.
Perhaps they were a bit "numb" about corruption allegations, said Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross, a Republican from Oswego, southwest of Chicago. Voters are genuinely outraged now, he said, but four years ago, they may have felt that allegations were par for the course.
"There was an element of, 'That's just what happens in Chicago, ha ha ha,'" Cross said.
Blagojevich was aided again by luck and a strategy of savaging his opponent, along with a Democratic tide that saw the party win every statewide election that year.
The Republican nominee, state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, was a longtime GOP leader, so it wasn't hard for Blagojevich to dig up video of her with disgraced former Gov. George Ryan. She was also a colorful, shoot-from-the-hip candidate given to gaffes.
Blagojevich, having used the power of his office to raise colossal amounts of political money, was able to launch a barrage of negative ads. By the time he was done, most voters probably thought Topinka was married to Ryan and on the verge of being carted off to an asylum.
Blagojevich also kept an influential black legislator, Rev. James Meeks, from running for governor as an independent by promising a huge increase in education funding. He never delivered the money.
"I think Rev. Meeks found out the same thing that everybody else who crawls into bed with Blagojevich finds out: You don't get what you're promised," said Brian McFadden, who ran Topinka's campaign.
The governor had the backing of fellow Democratic officials. Virtually all of them were willing to hold their nose and support Blagojevich despite widespread doubts about his competence and honesty.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, who had publicly clashed with Blagojevich and later would refuse to be in the same room with him, co-chaired his re-election committee. Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a lifelong ethics watchdog, vouched for his running mate. Even a rising star named Barack Obama praised Blagojevich.
"We've got a governor in Rod Blagojevich who has delivered consistently on behalf of the people of Illinois," Obama said.
Edwin Eisendrath, who got 29 percent of the vote when he challenged Blagojevich in the 2006 Democratic primary, said voters had plenty of reason to mistrust Blagojevich, but they also had Democratic leaders telling them he was OK. They, not the voters, bear most of the responsibility, he said.
"It's their job," Eisendrath said. "It's not the people's job to get there first."
Now, of course, Blagojevich's public image has gone from "another shady politician" to "nutty criminal defendant."
He appeared on "Celebrity Apprentice" and was exposed as someone who couldn't use a computer but happily wasted time proclaiming his innocence to everyone he met. Even comedian Joan Rivers, a quirky person used to colorful characters, said she found him a bit much.
Tapes and testimony at his federal corruption trial reveal him spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on clothes, showing up at the office only a few hours each week, and profanely ranting at the people of Illinois and just about everyone else.
The tapes also show Blagojevich endlessly speculating about what he could get in exchange for appointing an Obama ally to the U.S. Senate. At one point he ponders being named ambassador to India. Was Blagojevich worried about having the expertise to serve in one of the world's most complex and dangerous regions?
No, he wanted to know about quality of jogging paths in New Delhi.
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