The arrest this morning of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has sparked intense discussion in the political universe over how great a taint his ethical follies will have both on the next Illinois Senator and Barack Obama.
The governor, accused of seeking cash for the political appointment of Obama's Senate replacement, is not a close associate of the President-elect. Indeed, in the affidavit, Blagojevich called Obama a "motherfucker" for wanting him to appoint an official that the governor either did not like or wouldn't receive money from. Local news reports, meanwhile, suggest that it was Obama chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel who blew the whistle on the governor.
But the fact that Blagojevich put, in essence, a for-sale sign on Obama's Senate seat -- and some of the lengths he went to in order to extract financial benefit from the process -- could create for long-term damage for the Democratic Party and, by extension the President-elect.
This is "a new low," said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, discussing the arrest on Tuesday. "The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave."
Take, for example, the part of the affidavit that deals with Blagojevich's attempts to forge a three-way deal involving Obama and the SEIU, wherein he would be appointed the head of the union's affiliate -- Change to Win -- Obama would help the SEIU advance its political objectives, and the group and the President-elect would have a favorable official appointed into the vacant seat.
"JOHN HARRIS [Blagojevich's chief of staff] suggested that SEIU Official make ROD BLAGOJEVICH the head of Change to Win and, in exchange, the President-elect could help Change to Win with its legislative agenda on a national level. Advisor B asked why SEIU Official cannot just give the job to ROD BLAGOJEVICH. HARRIS responded that it would be just a big "give away" for SEIU Official and Change to Win since there are already individuals on the Change to Win payroll doing the functions of the position that would be created for ROD BLAGOJEVICH. HARRIS said that Change to Win will want to trade the job for ROD BLAGOJEVICH for something from the President-elect. HARRIS suggested a "three-way deal," and explained that a three-way deal like the one discussed would give the President-elect a "buffer so there is no obvious quid pro quo for [Senate Candidate 1]." ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated that for him to give up the governorship for the Change to Win position, the Change to Win position must pay a lot more than he is getting paid right now. Advisor B said that he liked the idea of the three-way deal. ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated that he is interested in making $250,000 to $300,000 and being on some organization boards. Advisor B said they should leverage the President-elect's desire to have Senate Candidate 1 appointed to the Senate seat in order to get a head position with Change to Win and a salary. Advisor B agreed that the three-way deal would be a better plan than ROD BLAGOJEVICH appointing Senate Candidate 2 to the Senate seat and getting more done as Governor."
There is absolutely nothing in the affidavit to suggest that the SEIU (who did not immediately return request for comment) or Obama were aware of this scheming. But the taint -- or at least the potential of taint -- is very real.
The Republican National Committee, gleefully, sent out an a memo only moments after the arrest was made painting Obama and Blagojevich as political allies. And every single political observer and Democratic operative I talked to this morning noted that Obama's Senate replacement will have a monumental ethics curve weighed against him or her.
"Unfortunately, whoever takes that seat now will have this legacy," said Robert Rich, Director of the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
As such, multiple officials (including Democrats) who spoke to the Huffington Post said that the Democratic Party should be pleased that Blagojevich was being arrested now, as opposed to after the Senate appointment was made. The timing will help the party and Obama avoid accusations of insider trading, although Blagojevich may not step down and still seems likely to name Obama's replacement.
"As for the quid pro quos... I think people are cynical enough so that they know there are interest groups with their goals and deals, so I don't think it is a huge problem," said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "I think the bigger problem is if there are more dots that are connected. We do know that [Minority Leader John] Boehner has already talked about running against William Jefferson, Blagojevich, and you have Charlie Rangel... These problems build up. And the Republican Party's brand was damaged when these problems built up."
UPDATE: Via Politico: Change to Win denies any involvement in the Blagojevich affair saying it had no "discussion or contact with the governor or his advisers or anyone representing him."
"The notion of a job for the governor at Change to Win was a complete invention of the governor's office and his staff and it has no basis in reality," said Greg Denier, the group's spokesman. "We have an executive director, a leadership counsel, and the notion that somehow the former governor of Illinois can simply step in and assume leadership of this organization, on the fact of it, is implausible.
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