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David Broder

Illinois sleaze in the air for years

WASHINGTON — Rod Blagojevich was a scandal waiting to happen.

When he was running for governor of Illinois for the first time in 2002, he had two impressive opponents in the Democratic primary. One was Paul Vallas, a reform-minded intellectual who had been Mayor Richard Daley's choice to take over the troubled Chicago school system. The other was former state Attorney General Roland Burris, a leading African-American politician who had demonstrated his appeal to white voters.

When I went to Chicago to cover their pre-primary debate, Blagojevich, a boyish-looking young congressman who got his seat thanks to the clout of his father-in-law, an influential Chicago alderman, was by far the least impressive candidate. He had made no particular mark on Capitol Hill and he seemed much less informed on Illinois issues than his rivals.

I was inclined to dismiss his chances, but a longtime Chicago reporter friend told me, "Don't write him off. He's a money machine."

In the general election, Blagojevich defeated state Attorney General Jim Ryan. He had a rocky first term, where he quickly became known as an absentee executive and where his inner circle was rumored to be operating with hands out.

But in 2006, the badly weakened Illinois Republican Party furnished another unelectable opponent and Blagojevich won without breaking a sweat. During that campaign, a visit with Mayor Daley gave me insights into Blagojevich's problems. "When he was elected," Daley said, "I advised him to get the policy right and then worry about the politics. He did exactly the opposite and, as a result, he's got millions in his campaign treasury and the school districts across Illinois are going broke."

In Blagojevich's second term, it got worse. He became enmeshed in a bitter feud with the Democratic leadership of the General Assembly, especially House Speaker Mike Madigan. While problems festered unattended, no budget could be passed. On a visit to the Lincoln Library in Springfield, I was told by leaders of both parties that "this is the worst" they had ever seen.

Republicans or Democrats, they readily confessed that their heartfelt prayer was that something would occur to rid them of Blagojevich.

That something turned out to be Patrick Fitzgerald, the tough U.S. attorney in Chicago best known as the prosecutor of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

Fitzgerald began to close in on Blagojevich. A number of the governor's pals, including developer Tony Rezko, were indicted and convicted. But Blagojevich was heedless of the risk and, according to the charges made public on Tuesday, saw the Senate vacancy created by Barack Obama's election as an opportunity to cash in.

The brazenness and the utter sleaziness of Blagojevich stunned even veteran FBI men, Fitzgerald said, but it did not surprise people in Chicago or Springfield who had been watching the governor.

The criminal complaint against Blagojevich, the nominal head of Obama's home-state party, is a mild embarrassment for the president-elect. But it really does not reflect on Obama, who has kept Blagojevich at arm's length for a long time.

As a fellow Illinoisan, I have to admit that this latest example of the Springfield Syndrome that has now tainted four recent governors is a signal that the ethics reforms Obama sponsored as a member of the Illinois Legislature did not go far enough to cleanse the pay-to-play culture.

David Broder's e-mail address is

davidbroder@washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Illinois sleaze in the air for years 12/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 2:02pm]
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