Illinois Legislature To Discuss Blagojevich's Fate
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is facing renewed pressure today to resign. Lawmakers there are meeting at the state Capitol, and they say they will act to impeach the governor if he doesn't quit soon. He's accused of scheming to sell President-elect Barack Obama's old Senate seat. NPR's Cheryl Corley profiles a politician who built his career with promises to clean up corruption.
CHERYL CORLEY: For Rod Blagojevich, running for office was the American dream. The son of Serbian immigrants first became an attorney. Then he ran and won a seat in the Illinois state Legislature where he served four years before running for Congress in 1996.
(Soundbite of Blagojevich on the campaign trail, 1996)
Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): Hi, Rod Blagojevich. It's nice to meet you. Thank you very much for shaking my hand. This is my wife over here. Patti, say hi.
Ms. PATTI BLAGOJEVICH: Hi.
Unidentified Woman: Hello, Patti.
Governor BLAGOJEVICH: This is our little baby, Amy, who - this is her first campaign appearance.
CORLEY: Blagojevich walked Chicago's 5th Congressional District promising more money for public education and tougher sentencing of criminals. This was the district - a combination of ethnic enclaves, suburbs, and Chicago lakefront neighborhoods - that Congressman Dan Rostenkowski had ruled for 36 years until he was ousted in a corruption scandal. Now Blagojevich was running against the Republican incumbent.
(Soundbite of Blagojevich on the campaign trail, 1996)
Governor BLAGOJEVICH: We have a congressman right now who, in my judgment, doesn't represent our community. And I hope you can consider me.
Unidentified Woman: I sure will.
Governor BLAGOJEVICH: Thank you. Thanks for being so nice. Thank you and have a sponge.
CORLEY: A sponge to clean up government, Blagojevich would say. Although his name was printed on the sponges, he had a behind-the-scenes powerhouse helping him - Chicago Alderman Dick Mell, his father-in-law - who helped gather votes and money for Blagojevich.
Dr. DICK SIMPSON (Professor of Political Science, University of Illinois - Chicago): Rod Blagojevich would still be a small-time lawyer if it weren't for Dick Mell.
CORLEY: Political scientist Dick Simpson works at the University of Illinois - Chicago. He says Blagojevich was not a wildly effective state lawmaker, but was active and was a fairly good congressman. Perhaps the governor's most notable moment in Congress came in 1999 when he traveled to Yugoslavia with Reverend Jessie Jackson to negotiate the release of three American soldiers.
But when a corruption scandal broke out in the Republican administration of Illinois Governor George Ryan, Blagojevich was back on the campaign trail. And in 2002 he was making cleanup promises again.
(Soundbite of campaign speech, 2002)
Governor BLAGOJEVICH: It is time ladies and gentlemen. It is time for a government that's as good and as honest and as hardworking as the people of this great state.
(Soundbite of crowd ovation)
CORLEY: Blagojevich became the first Democratic governor of Illinois in more than a quarter of a century. Jay Stewart with the Better Government Association says there was a simple reason why.
Mr. JAY STEWART (Executive Director, Better Government Association): Politics in Chicago is a lot about what's in it for me. And being a son-in-law of a Chicago alderman, a lot of people probably thought they could get something out of a Blagojevich administration.
CORLEY: The governor has long argued he's maintained his political independence, even though his father-in-law was a crucial part of his campaigns. Shortly after he was elected governor, Blagojevich and his father-in-law had a very public and bitter feud over a distant relative's landfill. And Alderman Mell would announce and later recant accusations that the governor's camp was selling positions for campaign contributions.
Soon a host of state and federal investigations began. Blagojevich has presented himself as a self-styled populist expanding health care coverage for all children in the state, for example. But he's battled state lawmakers. And Professor Simpson says his relationship even with lawmakers in his own party is extremely rocky.
Dr. SIMPSON: It has been a dysfunctional state of gridlock.
CORLEY: And for most of Blagojevich's term, his administration has been under investigation. More than a dozen of his fundraisers and allies have been convicted or indicted in corruption cases. Now the governor and his former chief of staff are the targets. Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky served with Rod Blagojevich in both the state Legislature and Congress. She considered him an ally, and she calls the corruption charges a tragedy for the governor and the state. Schakowsky says even if Blagojevich is innocent, he should go.
Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): The governor is unable to govern and has no credibility.
CORLEY: And Schakowsky says because the governor's focus is on his legal problems, it's best for the state to have new leadership. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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