With news of the scandal surrounding Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich grabbing the nation’s attention, it’s worth remembering that out of the last seven men who previously held that office, three ended up in jail. Illinois, in fact, is the only state where the governor has two official portraits: one full face and one profile. Blagojevich, in other words, is simply following in the footsteps of some of his less illustrious predecessors. Why then has this sordid affair attracted so much extra attention?
Well, for one thing, the scandal has touched upon president-elect Barack Obama. In announcing the filing of the criminal complaint and Blagojevich’s arrest, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald emphasized that Obama was not involved. “I should make clear, the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever,” said Fitzgerald. Despite the perfervid efforts of the right-wing dittorati to link Obama with Blagojevich, the two have never been close political allies or social friends, and Obama surely must have been aware of Blagojevich’s longstanding legal problems and his rapidly slipping popularity. It was hardly an accident, for instance, that the governor was not invited to speak at the Democratic Convention in Denver and did not make an appearance at Obama’s Nov. 4 victory rally at Chicago’s Grant Park.
Apart from the potential taint to the nascent Obama administration, this scandal is most noteworthy for the truly epic imbecility of the chief culprit. After the indictment and conviction of the governor’s friend, fundraiser, and all-around political fixer Antoin “Tony” Rezko earlier this year, Blagojevich must have known that he was the next target of federal prosecutors. Yet he apparently spoke freely in his office and on his private phone about blackmailing the Chicago Tribune, shaking down a prominent Chicago pediatric hospital, and auctioning Obama’s senate seat like a prize heifer at the Illinois state fair. Even after the Tribune, on Dec. 5, published a front-page story stating that the feds had obtained secret recordings capturing Blago’s conversations, he was still making those incriminating statements, some of which ended up in the affidavit appended to the criminal complaint.
Blagojevich, however, was not only stupid, he was evidently delusional as well. The federal tapes paint a picture of a man who is clearly five steps removed from reality. Blagojevich talked of getting a cabinet position or an ambassadorship from Obama in exchange for naming Obama’s choice, Valerie Jarrett, to the open senate seat, which is simply beyond the realm of possibility for someone who has been the well-known target of a federal corruption probe. Blagojevich even talked of running for president in 2016, which can only mean that he doesn’t read the papers or hasn’t heard that his poll numbers are even lower than those of George W. Bush.
Although it formed only a small part of the criminal complaint, the main political issue now is the fate of Obama’s senate seat. As long as he’s governor, Blagojevich has the authority to appoint Obama’s successor. Whether he wields that authority depends on which of the following scenarios happens first:
1. Blago gets impeached: The wheels are already spinning in Springfield. The legislature is scheduled to convene in special session on Dec. 15, and it is likely that one of the first orders of business in the house of representatives will be initiating the impeachment process. That will be a particularly gratifying task for Michael Madigan, the Democratic speaker of the house and a longtime adversary of the governor. Even Blagojevich’s legislative ally, senate Democratic leader Emil Jones, has indicated that he supports the governor’s resignation. It is unlikely, therefore, that he would throw up any roadblocks to impeachment.
Likelihood of this happening: Almost certain, even though Madigan pere has been wavering of late. But the impeachment process, even with a universally reviled governor and with the possibility that the votes in both houses of the general assembly could verge on unanimous, takes time, and Blagojevich won’t go down without a fight. And, in the meantime, he could still pick a replacement senator.
2. Blago is declared unfit: House speaker Mike Madigan’s daughter, Lisa, just happens to be the state’s attorney general — another example of the rampant nepotism that distinguishes the semi-feudal character of the state’s politics. Madigan fille has sought leave to file an original action in the state supreme court to declare Blagojevich unfit to continue as governor. Considering how distantly acquainted he is with reality, that’s not such a stretch.
Likelihood of this happening: Slight. The attorney general gets high marks for originality, but that’s not something that is particularly prized by judges, especially when they get drawn into the middle of a messy political struggle. No one has ever tried what Madigan is proposing, probably because the state constitution already has a method for removing the governor when he’s unfit for office: it’s called “impeachment.” Besides, the statute she is relying upon is designed to address a situation when the governor is physically incapacitated, not when he is politically incapacitated. The dubious legality of this maneuver and its slender chance of success suggests that Madigan’s primary motive here is to push her name to the top of the headlines and position herself as the leading “clean government” candidate for Obama’s senate seat or else for her own gubernatorial run in 2010.
3. Blago gets convicted: Depend on it, there’s no chance that Blago can wriggle out of this one. The federal complaint, in fact, is only the beginning: it’s pretty evident that Fitzgerald rushed to get the complaint on file, and that it was originally supposed to go to the grand jury in the spring. The complaint, in fact, is rather thin, despite the 76-page affidavit, but new charges will come out that might be even more stunning than the revelations that have, so far, come to light. Furthermore, everybody is flipping on Blago, including Tony Rezko, who apparently is cooperating with the feds in exchange for some time off of his impending jail sentence. Indeed, the criminal complaint makes it clear that, while the governor’s private phone was tapped, his campaign office’s phone wasn’t, which means either the room was bugged or one of his confidants was wearing a wire. Could it be that John Harris, Blagojevich’s chief of staff and fellow defendant in the federal case, was a mole who had already agreed to a plea deal in exchange for leniency? One wonders.
Likelihood of this happening: 100 percent. But if you think the impeachment process is long and drawn out, just wait and see the wheels of the federal judicial process begin to grind. The prosecution of Blago’s predecessor, George Ryan, took two years. And as long as Blagojevich remains at large among the large population of indicted-but-not-convicted Illinois politicians, he can exercise his power to fill vacant senate seats.
4. A special election is held for the senate seat: While they’re busy working on the details of the governor’s impeachment, Emil Jones and other the members of the general assembly have also indicated that they will consider drafting a law that mandates the holding of a special election for Obama’s vacant seat.
Likelihood of this happening: Less than 50 percent. The general assembly could pass a statute amending the current law, but Blagojevich would have 60 days to veto it, which he undoubtedly would. It’s likely that there would be enough votes in both houses of the legislature to override a veto, but it’s doubtful that the general assembly could act in time to affect the outcome of the current situation. Moreover, although no one wants to see Blagojevich name a replacement, all of the candidates who are hoping to fill his place are suddenly rather less enthusiastic about giving away this authority for themselves.
5. Blago resigns: Almost everybody has been calling for Blagojevich’s resignation, including Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, who stands to inherit the governor’s job. After all, opposing the governor carries almost no political risk, since Blago lacks any kind of constituency. The latest poll put his approval rating at eight percent, with a four percent margin of error. That means that the only people left in the state who think the governor is doing a good job are close friends and family members, corrupt state contractors, a handful of intransigent Serbian-Americans, and people who didn’t understand the poll question.
Likelihood of this happening: It all depends. The open senate seat and the governor’s resignation have one thing in common: they’re unique commodities that are in high demand. And Blagojevich, although he’s otherwise a complete moron, at least has the innate economic sense to know that, in those circumstances, the commodity in question should command a high price. As he poetically put it: “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden, and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for fuckin’ nothing.” Indeed. But that means that he won’t just resign for the good of the citizens of Illinois, especially if all they’re offering is their appreciation. As the governor might put it: “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. Fuck them.” There’s one person, however, who can offer something more than a hearty “well done!” for the governor’s resignation, and that’s Patrick Fitzgerald. Right now, that’s probably the only thing that is keeping Blago from flipping the figurative bird to the state and all of his many political opponents by naming a replacement for Obama’s senate seat. If he can swing a deal with Fitzgerald whereby he agrees to resign without naming a new senator in exchange for a lighter sentence, then that’s probably the best deal that the governor will ever get. Whether or not Fitzgerald will be in the mood to deal depends on the strength of his case and the terms to which Blago will agree. As mentioned before, right now the case against Blagojevich is thin, but it is expected to get much meatier as the evidence starts to roll in, and if the governore thinks that he can get away without serving time in Club Fed, he’s even more delusional than everyone thinks. Blago’s bargaining position, in the meantime, only gets worse. A deal, if there is one, consequently, should happen sooner rather than later.
6. Blago beats the clock: All of these maneuvers will be for naught if Blagojevich goes ahead and names a replacement for Obama. The governor has his finger on the trigger, and he can pull it at any time. Ideally, a replacement should be named before Jan. 3, so that the new senator can gain seniority over the incoming freshman senate class.
Likelihood of this happening: This is the flip-side of the resignation scenario, so it all depends on whether Blagojevich can make a deal with Fitzgerald. If the governor isn’t satisfied with the terms offered by the federal prosecutor, then there will probably be nothing to stop him from going ahead with naming a replacement. Harry Reid, senate majority leader, and the Democratic senate caucus have threatened to refuse the seating of any replacement named by Blagojevich, but it is unlikely that the senate has that authority under the constitution. On the other hand, the senate can always expel a senator whose election or appointment was tainted by corruption — indeed, the senate has precedent for expelling corrupt Illinois senators.
Of course, at this point, there may be few people left in Illinois who would accept an appointment to the senate from Blagojevich. There is one person, however, who could be counted on to accept: Blago himself. He was heard on the tapes saying that he would have an easier time fighting the federal charges from the senate than from the governor’s mansion, which makes about as much sense as his plans to run for the White House in 2016. Still, the prospect of Blagojevich appointing himself to the senate is a potent threat that might be enough to sway Fitzgerald into making the governor an offer that he’d be crazy to refuse.