Opinion: Ticket Replay: Obama and Blagojevich: No strangers in a dark, ruthless world


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This holiday week we are from time to time republishing some of our favorite Ticket items from this past political season. This one on the inbred political relationships in Illinois Democratic operations, originally appeared in this space on Dec. 11, 2008.

(UPDATE: Today, Dec. 30, 2008, Gov. Blagojevich moved in a bold political foray to nominate former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the vacant Obama Senate seat. Before the announcement Senate leaders announced they would not accept any Blagojevich pick. But the selection of a 71-year-old politicallly-experienced African American could create problems for Majority Leader Harry Reid. More breaking details here. Now, the Replay:


First of all, we need to crush a rumor floating around.

Illinois’ legally-embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich did not offer the vacant Barack Obama Senate seat to the FBI agent handcuffing him.

However, given the compelling courtroom nature of wiretap audios, especially ones as brazenly specific as those the feds allege they have of Blagojevich discussing the sale of his nomination to that seat, Obama recognized the inevitable Wednesday and called on his state’s governor to resign. (Notice, he did so through a spokesman’s statement, providing no scandal-dominated Obama video for endless looping on news channels.)

This morning, Obama would really prefer to be back talking about forming his new White House administration instead of about disassembling one of a state political ally. He and Blagojevich are no strangers.

As a state senator, Obama and the governor had a mutual fundraiser, Antoin ‘Tony’ Rezko, now convicted on federal charges. Obama advised the governor’s first campaign in 2002, endorsed him then and in 2006 and campaigned for him two years ago. That’s what you do in Illinois politics, despite the persistent rumors of gubernatorial shadiness for years.

Fifty Democratic senators in Washington also signed a letter Wednesday calling for the governor’s resignation and raising the threat of not seating anyone he might name under the current cloud.

Fact is, the Harry Reid-led Democrats did this to create some political public relations distance from an embarrassing corruption case, not because they think that a Chicago politician would heed their urging any more than he would advice from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Politics can be tough and hardball anywhere, as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin knows from her successful struggles against a corrupt Republican establishment there. But none are tougher than ...


...Illinois politics in general and Chicago’s Cook County in particular.

There, the Democratic machine with its family factions based in specific surviving ethnic neighborhoods with long-running alliances across town has been entrenched for generations. Every so often it experiences some volcanic corruption case, almost always driven by federal, not local, investigators.

These erupt, produce a convict or two (at least three of Illinois’ governors have gone to prison in the last generation), and then subside until the next one. All this carefully chronicled by competitive local news outlets but largely ignored by the national media, especially in the last two years.

This is the local environment that produced Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff; William Daley, an Obama economic advisor, former Clinton Commerce secretary, son to the late mayor and brother to the current mayor; and Obama, whose national mantra has been change and reform but whose state career was not characterized by any abnormal wave-making.

Here’s how things are connected in Chicago politics: Blagojevich is a 51-year-old graduate of Pepperdine law and an ex-county prosecutor. The son of a steelworker, he worked his way through college as a shoe-shiner, pizza deliveryman and pipeline camp dishwasher in Alaska.

He married the former Patricia Mell, whose father, Richard, is a powerful city alderman and helped elect his son-in-law to the state Assembly.

When Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, longtime chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, pleaded guilty to mail fraud, a Republican won that 5th District seat -- for two years. He was then defeated by none other than Blagojevich, again with Mell’s help.

And when Blagojevich stepped up to governor in 2002, the district was inherited by -- tah dah -- Emanuel, a Daley machine groupie in the 1980s who’d become finance chairman for Bill Clinton‘s 1992 campaign.

So it’s very hard for longtime observers of Illinois’ inbred politics to believe that the staffs of a governor and retiring senator of the same party with a chief of staff also close to the governor would have no contact or discussion about the successor.

U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald specifically said there is no evidence involving Obama in the Blagojevich seat-sale and the ex-senator has said he had no direct contact with the governor over his successor.

Although, also according to Fitzgerald, the governor was taped complaining that the Obama camp was offering only appreciation for the nomination of a favorite, not money.

Who expressed that appreciation on Obama’s behalf?

That issue may arise today during an Obama news conference in his Chicago transition headquarters to announce at least three new Cabinet members -- Tom Daschle at Health and Human Services, Berkeley’s Steven Chu as Energy secretary and Lisa Jackson of New Jersey as Environmental Protection Agency administrator, as The Ticket reported here earlier.

Meanwhile, Illinois legislators and Blagojevich’s own lieutenant governor began preparing for possible impeachment proceedings against the governor; they have their own futures to protect. On bail, Blagojveich himself slipped and slid through snow to work in his Chicago offices as usual, realizing that a resignation may become his only bargaining chip as proceedings unfold in the months to come.

Blagojevich is the type of confrontational Chicago politician who several years ago shut down the landfill of his own father-in-law as part of one power play. It’s called ‘clout,’ a Chicago kind of word.

So the likelihood of a North Sider like Blagojevich heeding the resignation call of some insignificant South Sider, even a longtime friend who works out daily and is about to become the 44th president of the United States, would make the foundation of a hilarious sketch over at the Second City comedy club on North Wells.

--Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credits: Associated Press (Obama and Blagojevich-top) and (Blagojevich, Rahm Emanuel and unidentified man-bottom).