iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
GET UPDATES FROM Elizabeth Brackett
 

Pay To Play: New Man in Springfield

Posted: 05/28/09 01:45 PM ET

Elizabeth Brackett's new book delves into Rod Blagojevich's background, his upbringing as the son of a Serbian immigrant, the launch of his political career by his father-in-law, powerful Chicago alderman, Dick Mell, and his spectacular rise and fall as his ambition to be President led him to corrupt the office of governor in ways not seen before in a state where corruption has too often been the norm. In this Chapter, Blagojevich has just won his first term as governor and it soon becomes clear that although he had run a spectacular campaign he was not much interested in forming the relationships with the Legislature that he would need to govern.


Illinois Democrats could not have foreseen how badly things would end for Rod Blagojevich when he was sworn in on January 13, 2003. Democrats were elated to have won not only control of the governor's office but both houses of the legislature. Voters had bought candidate Blagojevich's Democratic message offering a new era of reform after the departure of the scandal-laden administration of Governor George Ryan.

But scattered among this new administration were the seeds of corruption that would eventually bring down Rod Blagojevich. Right from the start, the Democratic governor had a problem with the Democratic House of Representatives, and particularly with its leader, Michael Madigan.

In 2002 Mike Madigan was considered by most observers to be the most powerful Democrat in the state, next to Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. In state politics for nearly four decades, Madigan's base is in the Southwest Side of Chicago -- the Thirteenth Ward, once solidly white and ethnic, mostly Irish and Polish.

Over the years it has become heavily Latino with some African Americans, though large numbers of white ethnic city workers, police officers, fire fighters and teachers still live in the classic small Chicago bungalows that line the neighborhood's streets. Madigan's powerful Thirteenth Ward Democratic organization has historically been among the most effective in the city, rivaling those of the Eleventh Ward, home of the Daley family, and Dick Mell's Thirty-third Ward.

Born in 1942, the slightly built Madigan is Irish to the bone. His red hair and fair skin give away his Hibernian heritage. He is a tightly wound, disciplined man, who appreciates order and tolerates little dissent. A lifelong Chicagoan, Madigan attended what many consider to be the most prestigious Catholic high school in the city, St. Ignatius, then continued his Catholic education at the University of Notre Dame and Loyola University Law School. Not long after winning his law degree, he was elected to his first term as a state representative in 1971. That same year he was a delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention in Springfield, which drew up the rules used in Governor Blagojevich's impeachment trial 38 years later.

In 1982 Madigan won the powerful position of speaker of the Illinois House, and except for a brief two-year period when Republicans gained control of the House, he has wielded the gavel of the speaker ever since. He added to the Illinois tradition of powerful political families when
he helped elect his adopted daughter, Lisa Madigan, first a state senator and then Illinois attorney general. Madigan's other major responsibility has been the chairmanship of the Illinois Democratic party. In that role he supported his daughter for attorney general and Rod Blagojevich for governor in the November 2002 election.

And it was in that gubernatorial contest that Mike Madigan gave Blagojevich an early warning, a sign of things to come. It occurred at Democrat Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, when Democratic candidates and officeholders from around the state come to the fair to shake hands and eat corn on the cob and anything else that can be fried and put on a stick. It's a day to rev up the Democratic troops at a big pep rally on the grounds.

The 2002 State Fair should have been a Democratic love fest as polls were showing Blagojevich ahead, with Democrats likely to win both the Illinois House and Senate. Instead the first round of an internal party squabble was a harbinger of what came to be the trademark of the Blagojevich years. Candidate Blagojevich fired the first shot early in the week, telling reporters that Madigan was "arrogant" for steering $1.6 million in state funds to a friend who ran a private livestock show every spring at the fairgrounds. And this at a time of enormous state budget deficits in Illinois.

Speaker Madigan was not used to having his authority questioned, especially not by someone from his own party, candidate for governor or not. Traditionally Madigan rarely gives interviews or makes himself available to the press. But this time he acted quickly. He denied that he was arrogant--but conceded that he was in a powerful position "where I could be arrogant if I want to be."

To further put Blagojevich in his place and let him know early on what it would be like to tangle with the speaker of the House, Madigan said, "I don't plan to be critical of other Democrats. I don't plan to be critical of Blagojevich. I could talk about some of his indiscretions, but I don't plan to do that -- because I plan to be a strong party chair and work to bring all Democrats together." Reporters clustered around Madigan -- what did he mean by "indiscretions"? Madigan never answered. The warning was enough.

The exchange infuriated Dick Mell. With the rumor mill churning that perhaps "indiscretions" meant Blagojevich had been having an affair, Mell took to the airwaves to defend his daughter, denying any such thing, saying that Patti would not stand for such behavior from her husband.

"Knowing Rod Blagojevich and knowing what he thinks of my daughter, I guarantee there are no indiscretions," said Mell. "He'd have it from my daughter. Patti is a very strong-willed young lady."

Blagojevich too shot back, declaring that he had no idea what Madigan was talking about -- and then went out of his way to emphasize that he would not back down on his criticism of the party chairman. Candidate Blagojevich said, "How could you possibly justify spending money on [a livestock exposition] when you cut funding for health care, when you cut funding for public protection, correctional officers, when you cut funding for mental health facilities?"

This nasty exchange -- even before Blagojevich assumed the office of governor -- laid the groundwork for a dysfunctional relationship that prevailed between the two powerful political leaders throughout the entire Blagojevich administration.

The new governor's attitude toward the nitty-gritty of the legislative process didn't help matters. In charting a strategy that would help with his ambition to be president, Blagojevich had little interest in the workaday effort that goes into crafting legislation. He preferred to spend his time -- and his political capital -- in announcing innovative new proposals that would play well on the national stage: universal health care, preschool for all children, equal pay for women. His critics often accused him of governing by press conference, paying little attention to what was necessary to effect the programs he announced.

Mike Madigan was just the opposite kind of office-holder. Madigan loved the details of putting a bill together and was a master of the politics it took to get his legislation passed. He avoided the limelight, preferring to wield his considerable power behind the scenes. A man of precise habits, when in Springfield Madigan ate at the same restaurant nearly every day, rarely drank anything stronger than a diet soda, and was in bed most evenings by 10 o'clock.

Charles Wheeler, longtime political reporter and journalism professor, suggests that Mike Madigan is respected by members of the Illinois House because he takes care of them.

"The thing that makes Madigan able to exert the influence over his members that he does, is that he is very rarely wrong in his political judgment," Wheeler says. "And his members respect him for that. And he's also someone who is very, very concerned about their welfare in the sense of making sure they can create the kind of record that helps get them reelected."

Critics of Madigan complain that he uses his power ruthlessly. One former legislator has described Madigan's method of working with the legislature: "In Madigan's world, he will come up to a legislator and ask the legislator once for a vote, and the legislator knows he has maybe
30 seconds to make up his mind or Madigan will walk away -- and Madigan then will find some way to get his vote. But the legislator will have a black mark on his career for the rest of his tenure."

While the new Blagojevich administration had made promises to reform the state's hiring and firing practices, to many in Springfield its actions looked a lot like old-line political patronage politics -- but at a higher price. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald began looking into the governor's hiring practices early on, when reports surfaced about a mysterious $1,500 check from Blagojevich's boyhood friend, Michael Ascaridis, that had made its way into the governor's campaign coffers at just about the time Ascaridis's wife received a state job. Blagojevich claimed the $1,500 check was a birthday gift to his daughter Amy.

Blagojevich created another big problem for himself by firing state employees who had worked in the previous Republican administration, even though they were protected from political firings by a 1990 court decision. A 2004 report from the Illinois inspector general's office found that the administration's hiring decisions were even more egregious. The governor's office was controlling hiring, not the various department heads. In other words, illegal patronage hiring and fi ring was alive and well in the Blagojevich administration.

In the first years Joe Cini was director of the Governor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs (GOIA), which meant he was Blagojevich's patronage chief and held sway over who would and would not be hired in the Blagojevich administration. The inspector general found that at least 360 people had been awarded their jobs after their applications were sent through back channels by the governor's office or sent in by politically connected officials. That, said Inspector General Zaldwaynaka Scott, showed "not merely an ignorance of the laws, but complete and utter contempt for the law." Four years later, Scott's report was the basis for one of the points in the Article of Impeachment the Illinois House sent to the State Senate.

While many of the battles over hiring and firing were private affairs, the other major struggle in Blagojevich's first term couldn't have been more public. In Illinois from January to June, the General Assembly meets under an obligation to draw up a state budget. Each year it is the most significant item on the legislature's agenda.

The Blagojevich administration faced a $5 billion budget shortfall the first year. The governor got around that problem with a massive and controversial borrowing plan that would pile money into the state's five employee pension plans, whose underfunding was responsible for a large portion of the deficit. These were the very same pension plans that Tony Rezko and Stuart Levine were violating to enrich themselves and, according to court testimony, to funnel money into the governor's campaign coffers.

The borrowing plan worked this way. Up to $10 billion in bonds would be sold and the money placed in the pension funds, where it would be invested. Legislators balked but finally approved the plan. The budget process hadn't gone as smoothly as legislators had hoped, but at least they believed the budget negotiations for the next fiscal year were complete.

But state government in the Blagojevich era usually ran contrary to conventional wisdom. In a move that initially puzzled, then angered legislators, after the budget had been agreed on Blagojevich called in the state's constitutionally elected officials -- the lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, comptroller and treasurer -- and told them to cut their budgets. He insisted that the cuts were necessary to achieve a balanced budget.

It was a move that particularly infuriated Secretary of State Jesse White, who at the time was the leading African-American vote-getter in Illinois. White was in his second term as secretary of state and an extremely popular politician. He was much loved as the founder of the Jesse White Tumbling Team, which gave Chicago's inner-city kids an alternative to guns, gangs and drugs, and a chance to perform around the country.

White, a tumbler himself, is a proud man who, in his sixties, still maintains his athletic physique.

White was appalled by the way Blagojevich handled his first state budget process. He recalls, "The governor called all the constitutional officers up to his office -- and as we walked in, he said, 'I didn't want to meet with you but one of my aides insists upon -- or thought it was a good idea for me to talk with you personally.' I said, 'Well, whoever that aide was, he should be rewarded because I think it's only fitting and proper that if you are going to have a meeting with us where you're going to cut our budget, I think it would be nice for you to talk with us face to face, and to invite us up to your office in order to do so.' So he said, 'Well, you're here because I need money for the rainy day fund and I need to take from each of the constitutional officers -- seven and a half percent.' And I said to him, since I was probably the senior member there, I said, 'Governor, if you take more than 3 percent from my budget, I'll have to close facilities, lay people off, fire people.' And he said, 'Jesse, that doesn't sound like such a bad idea.'"

White says he was furious for good reason. First, he had just read that Blagojevich had brought in $880,000 from the Service Employees International Union for his campaign fund. Now the governor was sticking it to those union members whose state jobs might be in jeopardy if the budget cut he was asking for was approved.

Second, White pointed out that several weeks later Blagojevich told a school audience that he wanted to put more money into the schools, but because Secretary of State Jesse White and others were resisting budget cuts, he couldn't give them the money. Those comments from the
governor, White said, made him wonder: what happened to that rainy day fund the governor had talked about in his office?

Ultimately the state's constitutional officers met again with the governor to try to work something out. White said they thought they had a deal. He remembers, "We went to his office and I said to him, 'Governor, the best I can do is to give you 3 percent, like I said yesterday.' Lisa Madigan said, 'Governor, the same here -- 3 percent.' Judy Baar Topinka [the state treasurer] said, 'Three percent.' And Dan Hynes [the comptroller] is on the speaker-phone and [the governor] says, 'Dan, it looks like we have a consensus -- it's going to be 3 percent across the board.' We shook hands and we left."

But it wasn't over yet, White continued. "A couple hours later he called me, called downstairs to my office and said, 'I'd like to amend the 3 percent -- to make it 5 percent.' I said, 'Governor, we have an agreement at 3 percent.' He says, 'I'm gonna have a press conference at 2 o'clock, and I'm gonna announce that I'm taking 7 1/2 percent!'" White was astonished.

The governor continued his attack on the budget process, calling legislators who opposed his cuts "a bunch of drunken sailors." Finally, the governor used his line-item veto power to cut the budgets of all the constitutional officers, including Jesse White, by 7 1/2 percent.

White tried to remedy what he regarded as a financial catastrophe by going back to the legislature to try to void some of the governor's actions. He succeeded in collecting enough votes to restore most of the money with one bill. Just as the legislature was on the verge of calling up a second bill that would restore the remainder of the cuts, Blagojevich summoned White to his office. He told him that if he would delay calling up the second bill, the governor would have a press conference and restore the cuts himself.

That wasn't good enough for Jesse White. Standing in the governor's office, toe to toe with Blagojevich, White fumed, "Governor, for whatever you think of [former governor] George Ryan... I've known him for thirty years. He never lied to me once. You've lied to me 15 times in six months."

Six years later, after the governor was arrested by the FBI and accused of trying to sell Obama's U.S. Senate seat, Blagojevich eventually named former state comptroller Roland Burris to fill the seat. It was Secretary of State Jesse White who refused to certify the governor's signature on the certificate of appointment. His action ensnarled the process for several days. Jesse White is a man who does not forget.

That first legislative session in 2003 set the tone for Blagojevich's relationship with the legislature for the ensuing six years. The governor's determination to stick to his campaign promise -- not to raise the state income tax or sales tax -- made each year's budget process increasingly difficult and contentious. Meanwhile the state's budget deficit continued to grow. Yet the governor's insistence on maintaining his "no tax increase" pledge won him support among Illinois voters. At the end of his first year in office he had a 65 percent approval rating.

His relationship with state representatives and state senators, however, never improved. So little trust existed between the governor and members of the legislature, in fact, that in 2004 lawmakers took the unprecedented step of demanding that the governor sign so-called
memoranda of understanding to verify that he would uphold his end of any agreement that was reached. In essence they were saying that the governor's word was no good.

Blagojevich's apparent disdain for the legislators was frequently on painful display, exemplified by his chronic tardiness. A particularly distasteful incident occurred in 2004 when the governor arrived late for the funeral of a popular state senator, Vince Demuzio, who had died at age 62 after a long and difficult battle with lung cancer. The lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, had to step in at the last moment to present the ceremonial state flag, which had been draped on the coffin, to Demuzio's widow.

Journalist Charles Wheeler remembered that Mike Madigan was particularly disturbed with the governor's apparent lack of respect. "Madigan found it just this incredibly tasteless thing on the part of the governor -- that he wouldn't even go to the cemetery for the funeral of this guy who would have been one of his allies in the Senate. My sense in talking to Madigan was, he was amazed -- and just disgusted -- at this kind of behavior. . . . It became pretty indicative of Blagojevich's attitude. And over the course of his first few years in office, people began to realize that the guy was all about Rod Blagojevich -- and he was not someone who could be trusted."

Some of the harsh feelings against the governor might have been soothed had he spent more time in Springfield, the state capital. But Blagojevich stuck to his promise to Patti that they would raise their girls in their Ravenswood Manor neighborhood in Chicago. His decision not to use the 50,000-square-foot governor's mansion, with its Baccarat crystal chandeliers and a full-time chef, disappointed those who loved to visit and enjoy state functions at the historic site. Even unhappier were ordinary folks, downstate residents who are proud of the beautiful old home.

Legislators were more irked that not only was the first family not in the mansion, the governor was rarely ever in Springfield at all. During legislative sessions Blagojevich would make daily trips from Springfield to Chicago on the state's airplane, at $5,800 per round trip. A former senior adviser to the governor told the House impeachment committee that the press questioned the governor on overuse of the state plane. Blagojevich's response: "Fuck it, fuck them [the press]. It comes with the job."

Once in Springfield, the governor rarely interacted with legislators. A top aide admitted to me, "The governor just didn't do what he needed to do, and he did not spend time in Springfield,
he did not develop relationships, he did not care enough, he did not respect their work -- you know he called them drunken sailors, spending like drunken sailors."

"Even the governor's own cabinet officers usually worked on their own," said Judy Baar Topinka. "I mean, this man didn't talk to me. He didn't talk to his lieutenant governor, he didn't talk to any of his officers. We had no idea what he was doing. The only time we ever talked to him was when we got sworn in." According to Topinka, "Not one cabinet meeting was held during his first term."

To many, Blagojevich was simply an absentee governor. Rarely in Springfield, he could not be found in the governor's office in downtown Chicago either. His absence was a well-kept secret, according to insiders, who also say he left much of the day-to-day decision making to his top
aide, Deputy Governor Bradley Tusk. One confides, "As a manager he had very little interest in managing. What you hear about Bradley being the hands-on manager, you know, at whatever age he was -- 27, 28 years old running state government -- I mean, that was true."

Tusk led senior staff meetings every morning, but the governor never showed up. He rarely sat through policy briefings, asking Tusk to gather the information for him. When staff or policy briefers did manage to see the governor, they were often cursed out with a string of profanity. "Having to deal with the policy wonks was something that he dreaded, and Bradley quickly took us out. You know, Bradley for the most part would communicate the policy stuff to the governor or just make decisions himself," says a former senior aide.

Some of his top staff claim that Blagojevich's reluctance to deal with policy questions or accept more speaking engagements stemmed from a basic lack of confidence. "I think that's fair to say, and you know he just -- I mean I hate to sound cliche, but he had a kind of inferiority complex about, you know, sounding dumb, though he's not a dumb guy. . . . He wouldn't want to be challenged on stuff, or you'd brief him on some stuff and it would have some level of detail and he'd get very frustrated very quickly. But it's so weird that he didn't want to go to meetings and didn't want to call people -- but when he did go to those meetings, or if he did appear before groups, he did a great job."

As the pressures on him began to mount, Blagojevich retreated to his neighborhood campaign office and to his northwest side home. According to a top aide, he became so isolated by his second term that most of the communication with his senior staff was done by speakerphone from his home. When the Illinois House brought a 13-piont article of impeachment against Rod Blagojevich, he could only put on a media blitz looking for popular support. He had none in the Illinois legislature.