At the end of last month, Rod Blagojevich, then the governor of the US State of Illinois, was removed from office by the Illinois State Senate. Earlier in January, Blagojevich had been impeached by the Illinois House of Representatives following his arrest in December on federal corruption charges.
I have previously criticized Blagojevich, who earned the lowest ever approval ratings of any public official even before his arrest, and I am glad that my home state now has a new governor, Pat Quinn. In addition to his corrupt dealings (which memorably included soliciting bribes from those interested in being named Barack Obama’s replacement in the US Senate), Blagojevich paralyzed the Illinois state government with his fiercely ideological governing style. In particular, he refused to compromise on substantive tax increases or major government service reductions even as the state faced a massive budget crisis and ran out of money to pay for its mass transit system. The situation was made all the more tragicomic because Blagojevich was a Democrat, the Democrats control both houses of the Illinois General Assembly, and the Illinois Republican Party has been too dysfunctional to offer up any real alternatives (Blagojevich was reelected in 2006 by over 1.5 million votes).
Although the vote to remove Blagojevich from office was unanimous, Jonathan Rauch believes that the impeachment and conviction process was flawed and that “too many corners were cut”. Marc Ambinder offers up a rebuttal written by Rich Miller.
I largely take Miller’s side, noting that just because Blagojevich turned Illinois into a national laughingstock doesn’t automatically mean his removal was justified. But the former governor, as Miller notes, played fast-and-loose with the state constitution for years and was only arrested by the FBI after declaring on tape his intention to swap a US Senate seat for money and other political favors. Solicitation to bribery is a serious crime, but it is only the beginning of Blagojevich’s troubles. The former governor had a history of shady dealings, as his current mess comes after former Blagojevich fundraisers Tony Rezko and Stuart Levine were indicted and convicted of exchanging kickbacks for state business contracts. The federal indictment also lists the former governor’s attempts to bribe the Chicago Tribune into firing editors critical of him, and to extort money (in the form of campaign contributions) from a Chicago children’s hospital. It is for his earlier small abuses of power as well as for his more recent shockingly corrupt schemes that Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office.
Now a private citizen, Blagojevich still faces federal criminal charges. The federal prosecutor bringing the charges is Patrick Fitzgerald, a scrupulously honest US Attorney. Fitzgerald, while appointed by Republicans, has notably indicted and earned convictions of George Ryan (Blagojevich’s Republican predecessor as governor), “Scooter” Libby (Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff), and Conrad Black (a British Conservative politician and media tycoon). This record suggests that former governor Blagojevich will face a tough fight to beat the rap once his formal indictment begins later this year.
While it has sometimes been amusing to poke fun at Blagojevich’s pompous personality and to listen to the tape recordings of his brazen (and profanity-laden) criminal plans, it is hard to look back on his earlier years and try to find some small good that he brought to Illinois. The record is decidedly mixed. I am somewhat saddened to admit that I originally supported Blagojevich over his two rivals in the Democratic governor’s primary election of 2002, believing that he would be a moderate like his mentor Bill Clinton and that he would keep his promises to bring honesty and ethics reform to Illinois. Despite his two election victories, the people aren’t stupid (or at least can’t be fooled forever, to paraphrase Lincoln), and Blagojevich’s record-breaking low poll numbers reflected a profound desire to see him leave the governor’s mansion (which he rarely used, preferring a townhouse in Chicago and making the taxpayers foot the bill for private jet flights between Chicago and Springfield). Unfortunatley, Blagojevich leaves behind a legacy of taking political corruption to new heights–a legacy that has now ensnared Roland Burris, the new occupant of Obama’s former Senate seat. Fortunately, the people of Illinois–a state thrust into the spotlight by the election of its junior Senator to the Presidency and its bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games–won’t have old Blago to kick around anymore.