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Chicago: Politics Unusual

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich asserts his "testicular virility" as he engages in political battle with his father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell. It's a reminder that politics in Chicago really is like no place else. But independence and integrity may not be as important as loyalty.

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I have friends in Chicago who tell me that politics there has become almost boringly ordinary without me in town. The mayor hasn't been indicted and keeps a green garden on the roof of city hall rather than bones in his political closet. But just this week the city simmered with a brouhaha--Where else can you use that word?--that confirms that Chicago is to lovers of politics what Paris is to lovers.

Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich, who's from the city's North Side, told the reporters that he has the nerve--though, as you'll hear, he didn't put it quite that way--to stand up to his father-in-law, a powerful Chicago alderman named Richard Mell. After the governor shut down a landfill in which is father-in-law reportedly had a financial interest, Mr. Mell accused his son-in-law of offering state board appointments to people who contributed $50,000 to his campaign fund. Governor Blagojevich said on Monday that his decision to close the landfill is the kind of action that separates the men from the boys.

Governor ROB BLAGOJEVICH (Illinois): Do you have the testicular virility to make a decision like that knowing what's coming your way, knowing what's coming your way--OK?--and then stick to it?

SIMON: Now you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to suspect that when the governor chooses those words instead of `nerve' or `courage,' this isn't some rosy little political dispute about a landfill but a psycho soap opera about whether the son or father-in-law has more lead in his clip, to use an old Chicago cop phrase. Polls show that every time the governor tries to assert his independence and integrity, his public approval ratings plummet. People in Illinois, and not just Illinois, may care less about a politician's integrity than his loyalty. As an old Chicago pol named Roman Puchinsky(ph) once said, `When you need a job or a loan, who do you trust, the guy who's honest or a guy who's loyal?'

The connections that the governor's father-in-law have in Chicago's old political machine were just fine with Governor Blagojevich when he was building his political career. He was more worried about winning votes from people on the Ashland Avenue El platform than impressing The New York Times. Just last week, the governor held a fund-raiser at which donors were invited to shake his hand and eat rubber chicken vesuvio for $5,000. The very next day, he introduced a campaign reform bill that would limit contributions to $2,000. Reporters and reformers might find that hypocritical; politicians might just find that shrewd. It was a reminder to voters, if Governor Blagojevich himself seems to sometimes forget, that he's descended from a Nort' Side political machine, not the Mayflower.

Mr. GEORGE HEARN: (Singing) I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses. I deal my own deck, sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces. Yes, one life, and there's no return and no deposit. One life, so it's time to open up your closet. Life's not worth a damn till you can say, `Hey, world, I am what I am!'

SIMON: George Hearn, "Le Cage," at 18 minutes past the hour.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small