Even in Illinois, where the twin specters of political corruption and federal bribery convictions are as common as Lake Effect snow, Milorad Blagojevich now stands out for his rather inelegant — and seemingly inept — approach to chicanery. The governor, arrested yesterday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on fraud conspiracy and bribery charges, spent the past three years beating back probes into allegations of patronage deal-making, accepting checks from contractors and ties to an ally of President-elect Barack Obama, convicted real estate developer Tony Rezko. Yet he was apparently so indiscreet that he was allegedly caught on tape asking for upfront campaign donations, lucrative corporate board seats for his wife, even an ambassadorship, from political aspirants in exchange for an appointment to Obama’s soon-to-be vacated Senate seat.
“I can drive a hard bargain,” Blagojevich allegedly told one of his advisers, according to an FBI transcript. “You don’t just give [a Senate seat] away for nothing.”
Yet this is just the latest stumble in Blajo’s slow, spectacular descent from grace since 2002, when he won the Illinois governorship and ended a 28-year string of Republican control. Once a rising star in national politics, Blagojevich has been reduced to playing third fiddle to Obama and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, as his bickering, sparring and feuding with fellow Democrats — including the speaker of the lower house and even his own father-in-law — has neutralized his effectiveness in office. Meanwhile, his spend-thriftiness and unwillingness to tackle $50 billion in public pension deficits have aggravated the long-term fiscal burden borne by taxpayers. So his political ineptitude has been rewarded in kind: Just four percent gave him a rating of “good” or better this past October, ranking him the least-popular governor in America, according to polling outfit Rasmussen Reports.
As Democrats such as Missouri Governor-elect Jay Nixon and Obama celebrate their victories and champion their grandiloquent promises, they should look at Blagojevich as a reminder that electoral success is meaningless if not matched by effective management of government, holding tight on spending and addressing long-term problems facing state and federal budgets.
THE SON OF A CHICAGO STEELWORKER, Blagojevich worked his way through college as a dishwasher for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System before becoming a Cook County prosecutor. After marrying the daughter of a longtime Chicago alderman, Richard Mell, Blagojevich parlayed his father-in-law’s political ties and a squeaky-clean image as a populist reformer into stints in the Illinois House of Representatives and the congressional seat once held by the infamously corrupt Dan Rostenkowski, before placing the governorship into Democratic control for the first time in three decades.
But early on, Blagojevich spent more time ruffling feathers than governing. A feud between Blagojevich and Mell emerged soon after the governor took office, when he proclaimed his critical role in Blagojevich’s success. It escalated in 2005 when state environmental officials shut down a landfill run by one of Mell’s relatives, then unsuccessfully proposed a law banning a governor’s relatives from owning landfills altogether. Mell then became one of the first of many who accused Blagojevich of handing out jobs in exchange for campaign contributions.
Blajo’s relationships with his fellow statehouse Democrats were even less cordial. Legislators were particularly annoyed with his penchant for going behind their backs and attempting to use executive orders to enact proposals they rejected. A rivalry with longtime state House Speaker Michael Madigan escalated into legal sparring by 2007, when the Blagojevich sued Madigan over his refusal to caucus legislators for one of the numerous special sessions he called that year in order to pass an $8 billion tax increase. Longstanding battles with other statewide officeholders — including Madigan’s daughter, Lisa, who is the attorney general — became even more acrimonious as Blagojevich, under the guise of fiscal responsibility, cut their budgets.
This past February, a state senate panel rejected Blagojevich’s efforts to use emergency orders to expand one of his healthcare initiatives. Meanwhile Blagojevich even found himself sparring with Daley — himself tarnished by a string of corruption probes and public failures — over funding for the city transit system. Daley went so far as to call Blagojevich “cuckoo” after one particular skirmish.
AS PROVEN RECENTLY BY Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a willingness to challenge fellow pols can be effective if used to challenge an insular, spendthrift political culture. Blagojevich also joins a list of Illinois governors, including the legendary Otto Kerner (of Kerner Commission infamy) and Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan (now a resident of the Federal Correctional Institute in Terre Haute, Ind.), caught violating the public trust.
But Blagojevich has little to show for his graft and acrimonious relations. A penchant for big spending proposals such as the now-scuttled expansion of the state’s FamilyCare medical insurance plan has led to a 16 percent increase in spending between the 2003-04 and 2006-07 fiscal years. In order to keep budgets in balance, Blagojevich has resorted to accounting tricks and heavy borrowing — including $874 million in 2004 for Medicaid spending — in order to keep budgets in balance. As a result, the state’s general obligation and special obligation debts barely budged during that period even as it saw steady increases in tax revenue.
Blagojevich has been even less effective in addressing the state’s gargantuan public pension deficits — the largest in the nation — which now stand at $43 billion; declines in the stock market could lead that deficit to increase by another $7 billion, according to Lawrence Msall of the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based government reform group. Save for a $10 billion pension obligation borrowing in 2003, Blagojevich has attempted to use pension payments for balancing his budgets. At the same time, the state carried some $1.5 billion in unpaid Medicaid bills between the 2005 and 2007 fiscal years, according to a report released this past July by the state comptroller.
These problems loom large as the state faces a $2 billion budget deficit — and the uncertainty of Blagojevich’s political future. For his potential successor, Lt. Pat Quinn, and his fellow Democrats soon to take office, a little less Blajo would go a long way.