SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Folks who live and work in the Illinois capital of Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln is entombed, say the rest of the country may be shocked by the arrest of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, but to them, it’s just more of what they’ve grown used to.
“The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” said Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois on Tuesday morning while announcing the arrest of Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris. The two stand accused of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder.
“I thought I heard him [rolling over] yesterday,” joked a coffee shop patron with the name Bob stitched on his blue overalls.
Bob and other so-called “out state” Illinois voters have watched Chicago Democratic politicians run the largely rural state for as long as any of them can remember, several of them claimed.
It is Chicago politics-as-usual, “except on a grander scale,” another guy in the diner observed. He didn’t want to give his name because Blagojevich has a record of firing state employees who speak ill of his administration, the man said.
Springfield residents still haven’t forgiven Blagojevich for refusing to live in the governor’s mansion, where every Illinois governor since 1855 lived until Blagojevich was elected in 2002. The dark windows and barren walls of the two-story house on Jackson Street is all the reminder they need that the “boy wonder from Chicago” who opts to live in the Windy City, has turned his back on Illinois, they say.
The two-story governor’s mansion is the apple in the eye of Springfield residents and tourists since Lincoln visited the first governor to live there, in February 1857.
Many in Springfield claim they have watched Blagojevich marginalize the state capital until it became a hollow shell of its former self. His administration has curtailed the operating hours of state-owned monuments and historic places, fired state employees, slashed operating budgets and moved from Springfield hundreds of jobs traditionally located in the city, they complained.
Especially galling was his decision to turn off the Christmas lights and store away the traditional Christmas decorations that have brightened the governor’s mansion since it was built in 1855. Residents were still complaining about it Wednesday morning, long after the news broke Tuesday that Blagojevich was arrested by federal agents.
Most of the bureaucrats who grab their morning coffee at the fast-food joints dotting the approach to the Capitol grounds said it was business as usual for them. They were only mildly surprised at Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan's declaration that he would order a special session of the Illinois House to change how Illinois appoints senators.
Madigan said he was responding to a call by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to enact legislation to remove the disgraced governor’s authority to appoint Obama’s replacement. Currently, Blagojevich can appoint a replacement despite his arrest.
“I am prepared to convene the House next Monday to change state law to provide for a special election for the U.S. Senate replacement. I would urge U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin to take note of this action,” Madigan said in a statement released by his Chicago office. “On the question of impeachment, I am prepared to discuss the suggestions of the House Republican leader.”
In nearby Macoupin County, early breakfast customers at a diner in tiny Girard guffawed and cheered when the television news showed House Republican leader Rep. Tom Cross demanding that Blagojevich resign or face immediate impeachment. Most of them are Republican farmers or Democratic coal miners who apparently detest him with equal vigor.
Illinois state law says that any impeachment proceedings have to begin in the Illinois House, with a trial to follow in the state Senate if the House supports impeachment. Under the state Constitution, the 118-member House must first vote by a simple majority — 60 votes — to impeach a state officeholder. The 59-member Senate then must vote by a two-thirds majority — 40 votes — to convict.
Madigan issued a statement Tuesday saying that he would consider suggestions made by Cross to immediately begin impeachment proceedings.
"I believe in the rights of individuals to due process, but I also believe action must be taken to avoid certain functions of state government from being irrevocably tarnished by Governor Blagojevich’s continued exercise of power," Madigan said.
Since then, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown cautioned that there are several complications to proceeding with impeachment. A new Legislature will be sworn in on Jan. 14, and if impeachment proceedings start before then, there’s a question of whether it could continue with new lawmakers or have to start over, he said.
Madigan’s daughter, Lisa, the Illinois attorney general, was less cautious. She issued a statement on her official state Web site calling for one of her father’s least favorite people to “immediately resign and allow Lt. Governor Pat Quinn to succeed him.”
Quinn, Blagojevich’s former campaign manager and current critic, responded by assuring Illinois voters that he was ready for the job.
He called on his former best friend Blagojevich to “do the right thing and step aside.”
They were joined by a long and growing list of Illinois luminaries, including Obama, who have called for Blagojevich to step down.
Meanwhile, Blagojevich went back to work at his Chicago office Wednesday morning without saying anything. His Chicago staff instead issued a statement saying the allegations “do nothing to impact the services, duties or function of the state.”
“Our state will continue to ensure health, safety and economic stability for the citizens of Illinois,” his press statement said.
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