analysis by Dave McKinney
In the same 35-day span, the world saw two remarkably different faces of the Land of Lincoln.
One was Barack Obama, savoring his historic win before more than 100,000 admirers in Chicago’s Grant Park, standing as a polished and inspiring symbol of change for Illinois and America, the first African-American president. A man of honesty, the masses hoped.
The other was Rod Blagojevich. What he had done in the few short weeks since Obama won the presidency would make the 16th president “roll over in his grave,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald would later say. Taking Illinois to a “truly new low,” the governor concocted an unprecedented “political corruption crime spree” in which he intended to auction off Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder and “feverishly” shake down state contractors for even more cash, Fitzgerald alleged.
In 190 years, Illinoisans have not walked in such political gravity. Producing unmatched euphoria one week and utter disgust the next, the state’s two best-known politicians have made Chicago and Springfield recognized datelines around the world. While Illinois has always been associated with great poets and authors, scientific achievements and natural wonders, we are also defined by our crooked politicians.
Obama’s historic win momentarily erased the stain of on-the-take Chicago aldermen and possibly a thrown 1960 presidential election. But by getting his name plastered on front pages from Australia to Alberta, Blagojevich became the butt of late-night television humorists and hardened the dishonor associated with Illinois, high-jumping the imprisoned string of governors that preceded him. As the state’s next big political corruption trial looms, at which Blagojevich may be proven the most criminal of all corrupt Illinois governors, his debacle leaves one big question: How can Illinois ever undo the damage done to the state’s image and to those reliant upon its services?
“The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering. They allege that Blagojevich put a ‘for sale’ sign on the naming of a United States senator, involved himself personally in pay-to-play schemes with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target, and corruptly used his office in an effort to trample editorial voices of criticism,” Fitzgerald said at a news conference explaining the arrest.
Picturing Blagojevich as he was in 2002, as a crusader against George Ryan’s corrupt legacy, puts some of Blagojevich’s alleged wrongdoing in perspective. This, after all, was a man who vowed to voters over and over to “change business as usual,” cleansing Illinois of the bad taste left by Ryan. Dig around on Blagojevich’s Web site a few moments, and press releases capturing those heady days spring to life as relics of a politician Illinoisans once believed. In January 2003, after instituting ethics training for state workers and setting up an “ethics hotline,” the governor strode before cameras in full political plume. “Stopping public corruption and improving ethical standards will be ongoing priorities for my administration. The people of Illinois expect a new day of integrity, of openness and accountability — and they deserve a government as good and honest as they are,” the governor said.
Fast forward five years, and the misdeeds Fitzgerald outlined were anything but “good” and “honest” government. It was a “new day” all right, but not as the governor had promised. The charges against Blagojevich were conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery. Caught on a remarkable set of undercover government recordings that might make Richard Nixon blush, Blagojevich could be heard boasting about his sole power to appoint Obama’s successor. “I’ve got this thing and it’s f---- golden, and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for f---- nothing. I’m not gonna do it,” he told adviser John Wyma. The governor was heard saying he might derive as much as $1.5 million in campaign contributions from U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson and an unidentified “emissary” if the governor were to appoint the Illinois Democratic congressman to the Obama seat. Jackson has denied knowledge of the governor’s alleged scheme to sell the seat and of offering contributions in exchange for it.
Blagojevich also contemplated appointing Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, whom the governor perceived as the president-elect’s No. 1 choice. In exchange, the governor allegedly theorized he could work out a deal with Obama to get appointed to a high-paying post with the Service Employees International Union, get wife Patti installed on corporate boards with a six-figure salary or maybe win himself an ambassadorship or Cabinet-level appointment that could propel him to the 2016 nomination for president.
Blagojevich was apparently eager for any of these alternatives, allegedly saying on tape that he is “struggling” financially and does “not want to be governor for the next two years.” He suggested forming a nonprofit group that he could head that might be funded — hoping for Obama’s help — by $15 million in seed money from billionaire Warren Buffett, an Obama supporter and economic adviser. Obama has said neither he nor Jarrett knew anything about Blagojevich’s varied schemes, which the president-elect called “appalling.”
The government tapes also allegedly captured Blagojevich and his wife discussing a scheme to trade state approval of a Wrigley Field buyout for the scalps of Chicago Tribune editorial writers who called for the governor’s impeachment.
And there was more. The federal complaint against Blagojevich alleged a series of instances where the governor offered to trade official acts for campaign contributions. In one case, Blagojevich told Wyma that he expected an unidentified highway contractor to raise $500,000 in contributions. In another, more egregious instance, the governor allegedly threatened to withhold $8 million the state owed to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago because its CEO, Patrick Magoon, didn’t make a $50,000 contribution to Blagojevich as the governor expected.
The brazenness and breadth of what Blagojevich allegedly did for his own financial gain makes him one of the most sinister officeholders in modern state history if the federal charges against him are proven, says political historian and author Taylor Pensoneau, a former Statehouse reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who has written well-regarded biographies on Gov. Dan Walker and Gov. Richard Ogilvie.
With the Post-Dispatch, Pensoneau covered two chief executives who were imprisoned after leaving office: former Gov. Otto Kerner and Walker. Kerner, who served from 1961 to 1968, was convicted of accepting bribes from racetrack executive Marge Lindheimer Everett in exchange for choice racing dates and two expressway exits at Arlington Park racetrack. The payments came to light when Everett declared the bribes to Kerner in her taxes as a business expense. Walker, who was governor from 1973 to 1977, was convicted in 1987 of making illegal loans to himself at an Oak Brook savings and loan he headed.
Pensoneau says Blagojevich’s alleged offenses eclipse in seriousness what Kerner or Walker were convicted of. The same is true, he says, when compared to George Ryan’s misdeeds. Pensoneau says Blagojevich’s alleged crimes seem more noteworthy even than the $800,000 former Secretary of State Paul Powell mysteriously stuffed in shoeboxes and hid in his suite at Springfield’s St. Nicholas Hotel, though Powell never was charged. In fact, Pensoneau says, one really needs to turn to Orville Hodge to truly find corruption on par with Blagojevich’s alleged misdeeds. Hodge was the state auditor of public accounts from 1953 to 1956 who embezzled more than $1 million in state funds to buy cars and property and to maintain his airplane before being caught and imprisoned.
“If everything holds true that is alleged, Rod Blagojevich is going to be right at the top. He’d be either equal to or right below Hodge,” Pensoneau says, when asked to rate the state’s most corrupt politicians during the past 70 years. “The Blagojevich situation seems to raise the gubernatorial corruption level to a new level. I think the state has entered a rather new orbit with this latest situation.”
One prominent government watchdog group hopes that all of the wrongdoing alleged on Blagojevich’s watch could presage a golden era in ethics reform in Springfield. The Campaign for Political Reform, which won ethics reforms after scandals in Gov. Jim Edgar’s and Ryan’s administrations, intends to push lawmakers next spring to enact contribution limits that mirror restrictions at the federal level, where individuals can donate no more than $2,300 per election cycle. Sky’s-the-limit contributions allowed under Illinois’ system really are at the root of the Blagojevich scandal and need to be curtailed by lawmakers if they are serious about repairing the state’s stained reputation, says the group’s director, Cynthia Canary.
“This latest scandal really underscores the need for contribution limits. We can’t just run a state with the bank vault open that allows greedy people to rob us blind,” she says.
“It’s interesting in the Obama context. Certainly Obama ran in the federal system with limits. He raised more money than we’ve ever seen anyone raise. But he also brought in a really substantial amount of small donors, and there was a sense of people being empowered. They felt their donations, their participation mattered,” she says. “In the system we’re in right now in Illinois, the $200 or the $50 donor has to feel like a dupe next to the $100,000 donor.”
Canary prodded Obama, as a presidential candidate, to place a well-timed phone call to Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr., a fellow Chicago Democrat, to dislodge legislation limiting how much state contractors can donate to officeholders who award their contracts. While she understands Obama has far more serious problems with which to contend as president, Canary says she wouldn’t mind similar intervention from Obama in pursuit of meaningful donation caps in Illinois.
“Clearly his job now is to govern a nation. But I think part of that is working with this state, providing some inspiration, some leadership to this state — this is his home — to really serve as a model to the whole country about how commitment to change can really work on the ground somewhere,” she says. Despite Canary’s push for tighter contribution restrictions, the General Assembly has been loathe to impose such standards in the past, fearing it would give an undue advantage to wealthy candidates and force those seeking public office to spend more time than they do now hitting people up for money. Some legislators think the pay-to-play prohibition that lawmakers approved in November over Blagojevich’s objections needs time to work. And listing campaign contributions and expenses on the Internet — a decade-old change imposed right after the Edgar administration’s own pay-to-play scandal involving Management Services of Illinois — still pays dividends, they say.
Incoming state Senate President John Cullerton recalls his days as a congressional candidate in 1994 when he tried unsuccessfully to unseat ethically tarnished U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. In the end, Rostenkowski outspent Cullerton by more than 2-to-1, and Cullerton was unable to overcome Rostenkowski’s advantage of incumbency, even though the congressman was the target of a federal grand jury investigation. While Cullerton says he is “open to anything to restore the confidence and honesty of our elected officials” in Blagojevich’s aftermath, that long-ago bid for Congress has shaped his views on the campaign-finance front and could work against the type of sweeping change Canary seeks.
“I’m open to more daylight. But with my own experience, when I ran for Congress, I spent my whole day raising money. That’s all I did. I didn’t go out and meet anybody. At the time, it was a $1,000 cap. I had to ask five people [to raise a total of] $5,000,” Cullerton recalls.
“Now, everything is disclosed. Especially with the Internet, it’s easier to see who’s giving what. If there is, say, a campaign contribution and then an appointment to a board, sure enough, the U.S. attorney and reporters will be there to investigate it,” he says.
In Blagojevich’s case, Cullerton says, “what you have to acknowledge is he got caught. Or, it appears he got caught. … George Ryan’s prison sentence didn’t seem to discourage criminal activity by the governor, assuming he is convicted. Like most things, it’s not ‘pass this law, and it solves the problem.’”
Without an Obama connection, Blagojevich’s problems wouldn’t likely have reached a global audience and be fueling such a discussion over what the next big ethics reform should include. Despite legislative reticence for a top-to-bottom rewrite of state ethics laws to prevent another Blagojevich scandal, any effort to clean up the system has to begin at the ground level: Voters have to care and demand change.
“I do not believe corruption has to be a permanent characteristic of any given state,” says Larry Sabato, a nationally known political analyst who heads the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and has written a book called Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics.
“The central and most vital point about corruption is it flourishes where people permit it to, in part because they expect it in the normal course of events. A classic case comes from your state with Otto Kerner being caught solely because the people extending the bribes to him actually deducted it from their taxes as a necessary and ordinary business expense,” he says. “Their argument was, ‘This is how business is done in Illinois.’ That’s what has to change. It’s always up to the people. It’s a democracy. They have to go beyond the images.”
Early on, Blagojevich had harbored hopes that it would be he, not Obama, sitting behind a desk in the Oval Office at the White House, but the governor’s career trajectory appears headed toward history’s political trash heap. Seasoned observers like Sabato marvel at how Illinois’ political system can produce two such disparate figures. Perish the thought, Sabato says, that the rest of the world should view the 13 million of us the same way they now see Blagojevich.
“I tell people all the time that politics is yin and yang. You have politicians who are remarkably good and politicians in the very same system who are very bad. It’s yin and yang. That may be more true here than in any other case. But Illinois should be grateful for Obama,” he says. “Without Obama, we’d be associating the state solely with corruption.”
Dave McKinney is the Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Illinois Issues, January 2009