Rod Blagojevich, the Stupidest Governor in the Country, Puts Obama in a Bad Light

Blagojevich's corruption charges cast somewhat of a pall on Obama's transition.

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By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog.

I'm a little late, thanks to jury duty and other matters, to weigh in on the incredibly juicy Rod Blagojevich story. Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday morning on the basis of a criminal complaint issued by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. That Blagojevich has been under legal investigation and has been in danger of indictment has been widely understood by all serious political actors in Chicago and Illinois for some time: This wasn't entirely a surprise. "Our worst fears were realized," was the official reaction of state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a critic of Blagojevich who has been contemplating challenging him in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor. But it was a surprise that Blagojevich made so many impolitic and indictable statements when he had every reason to believe that he was under surveillance. The always shrewd Jennifer Rubin is on to something when she asks whether Blagojevich is "just plain crazy." She is "intrigued by the mendacity, bordering on insanity. How does someone function in a high office with such a loose grip on reality?"

The answer, Jennifer, is that he's not crazy, but simply stupid, hugely stupid. I've long since come to the conclusion that Rod Blagojevich is clearly the stupidest governor in all of our 50 states, and he may be the stupidest governor I've had occasion to write about in the four decades when I've been co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. And a stupid man (or woman) in high political office can be very dangerous to all concerned. I have long said that as a political operative I would prefer a smart opponent to a stupid opponent. If you're pretty smart yourself, you should be able to figure out what another pretty smart person will do. But whether you're smart or stupid, it's hard to figure out what a stupid person will do. That's even more true when the stupid politician is your political ally. Stupid people do all sorts of things that are against their own interests. Like tell the press on Monday that you wouldn't mind being taped, even when (as we learned on Tuesday) that you've been saying all kinds of things that you should have known could easily send you to the slammer.

All of this puts Blagojevich's constituent and sometime political supporter—and president-elect—Barack Obama in a bad light, though we have no evidence on record that indicates that Obama did anything wrong. Obama said on Tuesday that he had not spoken with Blagojevich about his replacement in the U.S. Senate and then refused to comment further when asked whether anyone had communicated with Blagojevich on his behalf. Of course in ordinary circumstances, when the governor is not a stupid greedhead, there would be nothing wrong with a senator elected president to speak with the governor entitled to name his replacement in the Senate. And there's some evidence Obama did. An Illinois TV station reported on November 5, the day after the election, that Obama was planning to meet later that day with Blagojevich. The logistics wouldn't be difficult; Blagojevich like most recent Illinois governors does most of his business from the James R. Thompson Center (named for one of the few Illinois governors over the past 50 years not indicted and jailed) in Chicago, a few blocks from Obama's campaign headquarters. And in an interview on Fox News November 23, Obama's chief political strategist David Axelrod said matter-of-factly that Obama had talked with the governor about the Senate replacement. Now Axelrod has now said that he was "mistaken" about that.

It strains credulity to suppose that no one on Team Obama communicated with Blagojevich on this matter, and circumstantial evidence that someone, maybe not Obama but someone obviously entitled to speak for him, did. The Obama transition team is now being pressed to detail all those contacts, and will probably be forced to confess to some. To judge from the tapes and statements in the criminal complaint, Blagojevich felt that someone asked him to choose Candidate 1 (obviously Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett) to the Senate, and he evidently nixed that idea for lack of what he considered (though no one else on earth would) a suitable quid pro quo. Very quickly in the first week or so after the election, the talk that Jarrett would go to the Senate was replaced with the word that she would get a top job in the White House. My guess as to what happened: Team Obama recommended Jarrett, Blagojevich made it plain or hinted that he wanted some possibly illegal and certainly impolitic favors in return, and Team Obama backed off completely. After all, like everyone else in the Chicago political firmament, they understood that Blagojevich was an incredibly stupid man under a menacing legal cloud, and the best way to handle someone like that is to have nothing to do with him. There have been newspaper stories that Rahm Emanuel or someone else close to Obama went to the federal prosecutors with what they knew; this has been denied, but if it is true it reflects creditably on the Obama people.

"The most fascinating part is yet to be told," Jennifer Rubin writes, "how someone this unhinged gets to be governor and gets re-elected without anyone blowing the whistle." Well, the short answer is that this is Chicago, and Chicago politics is unique, as I argued in this blogpost, which starts off with an examination of the question how the unrepentant terrorist William Ayers thrived in the Chicago civic establishment or what I call le tout Chicago. The answer to the question of how Ayers and Blagojevich rose is family connections. Ayers is the son of a former Chairman of Commonwealth Edison (now Exelon). Blagojevich is the son-in-law of 33rd Ward Democratic Committeeman Dick Mell. Ward committeemen are hugely important in Chicago politics: Dan Rostenkowski and his father had been the 32nd ward committeemen from 1935 to 1995; the ward committeemen from the 11th ward since some time in the 1940s have been Richard J. Daley, Richard M. Daley and John Daley; the 13th ward committeeman Bill Lipinski, retiring suddenly from Congress in 2004, was able to get the Democratic nomination for his son Dan Lipinski from a group of ward committeemen despite the fact that Dan Lipinski was a political science professor at the University of Tennessee and hadn't lived in Chicago for years.

That Ayers is a loopy ex-terrorist did not prevent him from being hailed as a wise education reformer in Chicago. That Blagojevich is a breathtakingly stupid man did not prevent him from being elected, twice, as governor of Illinois. The more interesting case, and a story for another day, is how Barack Obama rose despite being neither the son nor the son-in-law of somebody important in Chicago; it says something about his impressive talents that he was able to do so. But then it also didn't hurt that his wife Michelle Robinson Obama's father was a Democratic precinct committeeman. There are many precincts in each of the city's 50 wards, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Mayor Richard M. Daley knows at least half of the precinct committeemen by name at any given time. Certainly his father did. And Michelle Obama, after her stint at the Sidley & Austin law firm, got a job in the current Mayor Daley's office. He knew where she came from.

It is an interesting political system that can elevate someone as intellectually supple and sublime (in his best moments, anyway) as Obama and someone as supremely stupid and sordid as Blagojevich.

Rod Blagojevich grew up in a fifth-floor walkup near Cicero and Armitage (far too far from the lakefront to be gentrified yet and probably ever); his father was a steelworker and his mother a ticket-taker for the Chicago Transit Authority. In other words, nobody, unless she was a precinct committeewoman. Rod was a Golden Gloves boxer, a graduate of Northwestern (I'm guessing he had an athletic scholarship), and a lawyer who got hired in State's Attorney Richard M. Daley's office in 1986. In 1988 he met Patti Mell; in 1990 they were married; in 1992 he was elected to the state House of Representatives: a natural sequence in Chicago. In 1996 he set his eyes on a seat in Congress. The 5th congressional district, running from the lakefront north of the Loop westward to some pretty droopy suburbs, was represented by a Republican, Michael Flanagan, who in 1994 beat the then scandal-tarred Dan Rostenkowski (for whom I have a soft spot: he was a genuinely able and I think public-spirited chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee). It was obvious Flanagan wasn't going to win a second term. Blagojevich as Dick Mell's son-in-law, with a Slavic name (this had long been thought of as a Polish seat), managed to get the endorsement of Mayor Daley and to engage the consulting services of David Axelrod.

Aside: I have known Axelrod since 1981, when he was a Chicago Tribune reporter and I was a Democratic campaign consultant. We each switched soon afterwards to the other's profession, with sterling results for Axelrod, who is going to the White House just as the Tribune Co. is going bankrupt, and with results that are satisfactory if not as spectacular for me. Anyway, Axelrod did much of his consulting business in and around Chicago and has long been known as "close to the Daleys." Which I take to mean not that Daley or the people closest to him endorse or even look kindly on all of his clients but that he wouldn't take a Chicago or Illinois client who is unacceptable to Mayor Daley. Certainly he has been a reliable source on what Mayor Daley and the circle around him—the Daleys—are thinking.

Back to the 1996 election. Blagojevich's chief opponent in the Democratic primary was a left-wing state senator named Nancy Staszak. Her natural base was the lakefront liberals; Blagojevich's natural base was the 33rd and 32nd wards, a couple of miles to the west, and the rest of the district west of that. He beat her 50 percent to 38 percent. The general election was no contest; Blagojevich outspent Flanagan $1.5 million to $724,000 and beat him 64 percent to 38 percent. Michael Flanagan, I recall somewhere from the back of my mind, was given a city contract to do some lobbying. No hard feelings, kid.

Blagojevich was uncontroversially re-elected in 1998 and 2000 and made no big splash in the House (as his hypertalented successor Rahm Emanuel has done). The scandal-tarred Republican Gov. George Ryan, who later went to jail, did not run for election in 2002 after serving one term. It seemed pretty clear that Illinois was going to elect a Democratic governor for the first time in 30 years, but this wasn't necessarily a matter for cheer in le tout Chicago; the Mayors Daley have often gotten along pretty well with Republican governors, and anyway everyone in Chicago knows it's far more important who the mayor is than who the governor is (members of Congress are even less important than that). Blagojevich was opposed by Paul Vallas, who had been the Daley-appointed CEO of the Chicago school system but had fallen out with Daley (he later served as the head of the school system in Philadelphia and now has a similar job in New Orleans) and by former Attorney General Roland Burris, a black candidate from Downstate. None of the three candidates seems to have had the backing of le tout Chicago. David Axelrod did not work for Blagojevich this time, which I take as an indication that he and/or the Daleys felt that Blagojevich would be a truly bad candidate or bad governor or both. Unfortunately, he turned out not to be a bad candidate. In metro Chicago, where most of the votes are cast in Democratic primaries, Vallas led with 38 percent of the vote to 32 percent for Burris and 29 percent for Blagojevich. But a big TV budget enabled Blagojevich to win 56 percent of the vote Downstate and that gave him a 37 percent-34 percent-29 percent over Vallas and Burris statewide.

The general election was anticlimactic. The Republican nominee, Attorney General Jim Ryan, had the misfortune of having the same last name as the disgraced incumbent governor. Blagojevich won 52 percent to 45 percent. An accidental result. Vallas in my view might have been a very good governor; Ryan for all I know might have been reasonably good; Burris, my guess is, would have been mediocre at best; Blagojevich has proved to be dreadful. He has long been held in contempt by the key legislative leaders, Speaker of the House Michael Madigan (father of Attorney General Lisa Madigan) and Senate President Emil Jones (an old-timer who helped Obama's career by getting him credit for key bills).

Nonetheless, he was re-elected. He had primary opposition from onetime lakefront Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, who attracted no serious support in don't-back-no-losers Illinois and lost 71 percent to 29 percent. The hapless Illinois Republicans picked their last candidate to have won statewide office, Judy Baar Topinka, but she lost 50 percent to 39 percent, with a Green Party candidate getting 10 percent of the vote. (Did Richie Daley and David Axelrod in the privacy of the voting booth vote for Eisendrath or Topinka or the Green? I wouldn't be surprised.)

Let me say a few words about another dynastic Chicago politician, Jesse Jackson Jr., who has been identified as "Senate candidate 5," whose emissary, Blagojevich says on the tapes, promised to raise $500,000 in campaign contributions in return for being named to the Senate. (Blagojevich, with typical stupidity, says he wants the money up front.) Jackson gave a press conference on Wednesday denying that he had made any such offer to Blagojevich or had authorized anyone else to do so. He made it clear he would still like to be named to the Senate and argued that he would be a good senator based on his performance in the House over the last 13 years (not a risible claim; he's been a good congressman). I'm willing to accept Jackson's denials, and I can see that he doesn't want to seem to be a buyer when the headline over the Blagojevich controversy is "Senate seat for sale." But I also think it's clear that what Senate candidate 5's purported agent proposed is not in any way illegal. It's legal for politicians to do legal political favors for each other. The governor can legally appoint any resident of the state over age 30 to the Senate (though he probably won't be able to do so for very long, since Madigan and Jones are preparing legislation which will take that right away). Jesse Jackson Jr. can legally raise legal campaign contributions for any candidate he likes. Raising money for other candidates is arguably legitimate party-building and party-unifying activity (as when a winning candidate for a presidential nomination helps a loser raise money to pay off campaign debts). Most likely Jackson's chances for the Senate seat have been destroyed, but it seems to me that the case for his nomination is as strong as it ever was—and, theoretically, should be even if he promised to raise campaign funds for Blagojevich. Of course it would be another matter if he thought that Blagojevich would make personal use of campaign funds, and I guess you can argue that with a politician as stupid as Blagojevich you should always consider that a lively possibility.

The Blagojevich scandal casts something of a pall on Barack Obama's otherwise pretty impressive and highly popular performance in this transition period. It's a reminder that he's the product of a political system that also produces some very tawdry corruption and official incompetence. And that he has been a get-along, go-along politician himself, taking care never to buck Mayor Daley and even backing the flagrantly unqualified Todd Stroger for Cook County Board president in 2006. It puts another name on the list of prominent Democrats who have been tarred by scandal or accused of scandalous behavior—Eliot Spitzer, Charles Rangel, William Jefferson, Kwame Kilpatrick—at a time when memories of Mark Foley, Bob Ney, and Jack Abramoff are beginning to fade. It will provide continuing headline stories. Will Blagojevich resign? My guess is: no way. Will the legislature take away the power of appointing a senator to fill the Obama vacancy? My sense is: quite quickly. Will there then be, as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin has called for, a special election to fill the seat? My guess is: could well be. In which case it's not entirely clear that the Democrat will win, even in such a heavily Democratic state as Illinois. The nightmare scenario for Democrats is a big primary fight on their side, with the Republican nomination going to North Shore Rep. Mark Kirk, a political moderate with a WASPy clean-government reputation that Illinois voters may find attractive after the Blagojevich scandal. Not likely, perhaps, but possible, and not what the Obama administration will need in its early months. All of which is an illustration of my political adage: Nothing is free in politics, but there is some question as to when you pay the price. Obama has profited greatly from his interactions with the Chicago civic establishment. Now he is paying a price.

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