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Blagojevich Restropective: The Man Who Knew Too Little

Daniel J. Kelley 29 July 2010 4 Comments

I was coming out of a polling place in East Rogers Park, where I had served as a precinct judge of election, when I found that my Pontiac would not start. I placed a telephone call to a police officer assigned to the 24th District and he helped me get a tow truck. While we were waiting for the truck, we began talking about local politics and he told me that Alderman Dick Mell (33rd) was going to begin pushing hard for a young lawyer by the name of Rod Blagojevich.

I really did not know too much about the lawyer apart from the fact that he had once maintained a second floor walk up law office above a florist at the Southwest corner of the intersection Lawrence and Ashland Avenues. I was also unaware of the fact that Blagojevich had been romancing the alderman’s daughter, Patricia, now the potty mouthed pride of St. Scholastica Academy. I was not a resident of the 33rd Ward, so I did not particularly care one way or the other.

The Illinois General Assembly was redistricted in advance of the 1992 election and, as the cop predicted, Mell was able to put his new son-in-law across during the primary, unseating a nondescript incumbent, Representative Myron Kulas, in the process. The extravagant wastrel was on his way to a life of undeserved ease and plenty. His re-election was a dead certainty.

The unthinkable happened elsewhere on the ballot in 1994. Veteran Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski (D-5th) was defeated by a complete unknown, Michael Patrick Flanagan, who proved to be a “one term wonder.” Rostenkowski was plagued by a corruption probe that would result in his eventual imprisonment. He had not fully consolidated his position in his new district which had merged numerous precincts from his former 8th Congressional district with those of the retired US Representative Frank Annunzio in the old 11th district. During the redistricting process, Rostenkowski had moved farther North and his new district contained fewer of the reliable Machine precincts that had been his base and had many more upscale voters who were not as dependent upon ward politicians for their livelihoods. In fact, the former Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee faced challenges in both of his elections in the newly drawn district. Republican state and local candidates practically swept the field in 1994 and Rostenkowski proved to be the most prominent casualty of the GOP tsunami.

When Blagojevich, who had compiled a record devoid of any genuine legislative accomplishments during his two terms in Springfield, announced that he was leaving the General Assembly and would be a candidate for Congress in 1996, cynics began to wonder if his Machiavellian father-in-law, Dick Mell, had not quietly sandbagged Rostenkowski two years earlier in the contest against “Flavor of the Month” Flanagan. It would be far simpler and expedient to use Flanagan as a tool to defeat “Rosty” rather than riling up the other members of the Democratic Central Committee by having another contested primary. Rostenkowski’s spectacular fall created a grand opening for Rod.

One summer afternoon while on Washington Street near City Hall, I saw Alderman Mell striding purposefully down the street while State Representative Blagojevich ran alongside of him like an excited puppy dog. Mell continued walking at the double quick, so, in order to continue their conversation, Rod stepped in front of him and began back peddling like a basketball player on defense, dodging fire hydrants and lamp posts. It was a comical scene and I wished that I had a video camera with me. In subsequent years, as the relationship between Mell and Blagojevich soured after the son-in-law was elected governor, I often thought about Blagojevich harboring resentment for the period when he had to play the role of the supplicant to the old political ward boss.

In the 1996 House race, Blagojevich walloped Flanagan. In 1998, during the campaign, the Democrat Blagojevich paraded in Elmwood Park while wearing a t-shirt promoting the candidacy of his best friend in the General Assembly, the nominally Republican Angelo “Skip” Saviano. Saviano was also on good terms with State Senator Jimmy DeLeo, whose misdemeanor conviction in the “Operation Greylord” traffic court scandal was not a viewed as a basis for disqualification by the Democratic Regulars in the 36th Ward. Later, I saw Blagojevich briefly attend a single community function at a Lutheran church in the Rockwell Gardens neighborhood during the same campaign. He was appropriately smug and confident as the odds on favorite for re-election.

In the US Congress, as was the case in the General Assembly, Blagojevich was a show horse rather than a work horse. He neglected his duties as a legislator, sponsored no bills of consequence, apart from a single resolution to rename a branch post office to honor a slain police officer. Blagojevich was fond of preening for the cameras, issuing press releases and grandstanding. His favorite issue was threatening to introduce all types of legislation designed to restrict gun rights, including an exorbitant tax on ammunition. The bill went nowhere, but, if it had been enacted, the cost of purchasing bullets would have been astronomical. In terms of providing constituent services, Blagojevich simply did not care one way or the other. I know. He was my Member of Congress for six years. It is somewhat shocking to see so many Illinoisans react with great surprise to learn that “Elvis the Governor” never possessed a great work ethic. Had they been paying attention, it should have been clear that Blagojevich has been the consummate back bencher throughout his entire career as an elected public official. It is easy to be a do nothing as a legislator, but an executive is held accountable and, as such, Blagojevich was particularly ill suited to serve as governor.

In his initial race for Congress, Blagojevich had opposition during the Democratic primary. One of the issues that scored a few points for State Representative Nancy Kazak was that Blagojevich did not actually reside in the district. Although the Constitution does not require a representative to actually live in district, provided that the candidate resides within the state, it is an issue for some voters who expect their representative to be one of their neighbors. Blagojevich promised, if elected, that he would promptly move from Logan Square (which was and is represented by Luis Gutierrez in Congress) to an address in the 5th district. Two years later, he had not done so, and when his Republican opponent sought to revive the issue, Blagojevich railed over the radio airwaves that he could not be blamed for the difficulties that his real estate agent had encountered in terms of selling his home. He omitted to mention, however, that his wife, Patti Blagojevich, was his realtor.

Another small fire had to be extinguished by Dick Mell when radio host Don Wade of WLS 890 AM challenged Blagojevich for renting a vacant office adjoining the 33rd Ward office and paying a high monthly rental fee using his congressional funds. Mell deflected the criticism by falsely claiming the empty office was being used as a campaign headquarters and was stocked with signs and campaign literature. Rod coasted to re-election in 1998 and 2000. He might have been a career non-entity in Congress, but he saw the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield as a stepping stone to the White House.

During the gubernatorial campaign in 2002, more questions were being asked about Blagojevich’s political pedigree. He barely bested Paul Vallas in the primary and his margin of victory was secured in the crooked Metro East region. One of my friends, the late Larry Saska, a lawyer who died too soon, used to practice in the criminal courts. I recalled him telling me about his conversations with other assistant state’s attorneys assigned to the same courtrooms as Mell’s well connected son-in-law who informed him that during Blagojevich’s brief career as a prosecutor he seldom showed up for work except to collect his paychecks. I had heard similar rumors about when Mell placed Blagojevich on a City Council payroll.

The bland Republican gubernatorial candidate, the former Du Page County State’s Attorney, Illinois Attorney General, Jim Ryan, tried to point out that Blagojevich had never progressed beyond an entry level job as a misdemeanors prosecutor under Richard M. Daley, the Cook County State’s Attorney, but nobody was listening. Those who were listening may have been fallen fast asleep, such is Jim Ryan‘s dull speaking style.
Jim Ryan’s worse handicap was that he had the misfortune of seeking to succeed the disgraced incumbent, Governor George Homer Ryan, better known as “Lyin’ Ryan.”

In announcing his decision not to seek re-election in 2002, “Gorgeous George” shamefully told an audience of his loyalists in Kankakee that he had been driven out of politics by right wing extremists. He never mentioned his own political scandals or the fact that Jim Ryan had told him directly that he planned to challenge him for the nomination. As a final insult, George Ryan encouraged Corrine Wood, his wealthy lieutenant governor, to run against the attorney general. The primary was a costly affair and in the general election too many confused voters thought that the unpopular George, not Jim, was the Republican candidate. The two men are unrelated, but Blagojevich benefited from the mix up. When the 2006 GOP fielded another second string nominee, the duplicitous accordion player, Judy Baar Topinka, Blagojevich was able to raise millions in contributions to secure his re-election.

As soon as Blagojevich set his sights on the governorship, the ambitious Rahm Emanuel began to covet the Congressional vacancy created by Blago’s latest career move. A suburbanite from New Trier Township, Emanuel relied upon Don Tomczak’s crew of Water Department employees to literally flood the precincts, washing away Nancy Kazak again by using a spurious charge of anti-Semitism. After his election, Emanuel denied knowing that his campaign was aided by pay rollers and claimed no knowledge of promotions and pay raises in exchange performing political work on the city’s time clock. In effect, taxpayers indirectly subsidized Rahm’s candidacy. Emanuel, like many members of the Obama administration, seems to want to deny ever knowing Blagojevich, who encouraged him to run for Congress in the first place. Emanuel even assumed the unexpired lease for Blagojevich’s former district office on Lincoln Avenue. Later, he relocated the office to Irving Park Road.

My final brush with Blagojevich had a literary flavor. I was returning an armful of books to the Sulzer library on North Lincoln when I narrowly avoided a collision with the Governor one Sunday morning. I looked him straight in the face and he grunted, “Hi,” rather than apologizing and resumed jogging. He was running East on Sunnyside towards the lake. As the world now knows, from the constant media surveillance, the Blagojevich residence is located in Ravenswood Manor on Sunnyside.

Rod had managed to give his security detail the slip and went running alone that day. I had missed my opportunity! If only I had reacted more quickly. I could have thrown down those books and attempted to administer a full body tackle to Blago! Such was my fantasy and, as time passed, I came to believe that despite the possible legal penalties it may have been actually worthwhile to have tried. I console myself with the knowledge that I never cast a single ballot for this clown in any election. Blagojevich won seven straight elections, so some other uninformed voters must have been supporting him.

I have often thought that it was ironic and humorous that Blagojevich chose to purchase his current home on Sunnyside. The name of the street, “Sunnyside,” was derived from a notorious “resort” of the same name that served as a saloon and bawdy house when the region was well North of the city limits and untroubled by police supervision.

I wonder if Blagojevich will have his orange prison jump suit sequined so he continue performing as an Elvis impersonator behind bars? That is a question for the jury to decide.

**

Dan Kelley is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

4 Comments »

  • Frank DeBarnone said:

    I fear we’ve not seen the last of Blogo. He may even continue to reach out and touch us from prison. When he gets out, he will find work. This new job I predict will be in one of many industries that have been incorporated into a quote most often attributed to Hunter S. Thompson.

    The…..”Place industry here”…. business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

  • Jim Ridings said:

    This is the finest and most insightful column I have read about Blagojevich. This Manufactured Nobody truly was an Empty Suit, even if he was a $4,000 Empty Suit. It’s too bad the voters didn’t have this true insight into Blago from the beginning, and it’s too bad the press doesn’t do a better job of giving these candidates a thorough examination before it’s too late.

  • Frank DeBarnone said:

    Chicago is the biggest small town in the world. So for Dan, the author of this article, to have had pre-fame Blogo sightings is not that odd. I had a friend from the Southside that had an Irish immigrant Grandmother whom he quoted…….it was only one quote and it went like this. “Always remember your roots”.

    What significence would this quote have in relation to this article?
    Guys like Blogo make the old country look pretty good. For example, Potatos were great when you had them.

  • Finn Kacy said:

    If only the people of Illinois would have looked for substance rather than appearence think how much better off this State would be at this time. I too ran into Blago years before his rise when he was still pressing the flesh for his father-in-law. I’ll give him this, he could turn it on as fast as he needed in order to get people to like him. He was everything for everyone until the bill was placed on the table.

    I wonder how long it will be before a book he writes will be at the publisher.

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