Blagojevich faces fight of his life

July 21, 2010 8:33:05 AM PDT
The day before Rod Blagojevich's world came crashing down, he stood before the TV cameras confident and defiant, as always.He declared he had nothing to hide, even as a giant political scandal was about to engulf him.

"If anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead," said the boyish, helmet-haired governor, looking jaunty in a black leather jacket and turtleneck.

As it turns out, the feds had done just that.

The next morning, FBI agents woke him with a phone call, then led him from his house in handcuffs. And so began a bizarre, 18-month melodrama expected to culminate Thursday in Blagojevich's trial, where he stands accused, among other things, of trying to trade or sell President Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat -- for personal gain.

In the year and a half since his arrest, Rod Blagojevich has lost his job and become a political pariah and a comic punch line. But he's maintained the bravado that defined him as governor with repeated declarations of innocence that are vintage Blago: Confrontational. In the limelight. Never giving an inch.

"There has always been a damn-the-torpedoes aspect to his personality," says state Rep. John Fritchey, a friend-turned-critic.

That's been obvious as the impeached governor has turned notoriety into celebrity, popping up everywhere: Early morning radio, late-night TV. On stage with Second City comic actors lampooning him. At a block party where the avid Elvis fan crooned one of The King's songs (and sort-of swiveled his hips).

And most recently, Blagojevich, now 53, was on "The Celebrity Apprentice," where he seemed baffled by a computer, and was, for the second time in a year, fired.

"I think people are intrigued by him, fascinated by him," claims Glenn Selig, a Florida-based publicist who has transformed Blagojevich into a cottage industry.

So is it wise for Blagojevich to be clowning around while facing serious charges?

"Of course, there's always a worry how you come out," says Selig, who notes Blagojevich has turned down offers he deemed inappropriate. "I think he has a great sense of humor and he's willing to laugh at himself. ... Self-deprecation is not necessarily a bad thing. He's the real deal."

Those who've followed Blagojevich's career have another view.

"His ego won't allow him to give up the stage," says Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of politics at the University of Illinois-Springfield. "He has this supreme confidence in his ability to win people over. He believes he has a personal charm and brilliance that can single-handedly overcome anything."

"He's at his best when he's railing against something," Redfield adds. "He sees himself as being on the side of good and thinks others are trying to do him in. The act seems to be the same. He's just changed the audience."

And that audience has heard some strange things.

He told Esquire magazine he was "blacker than Barack Obama," then quickly apologized.

He called federal prosecutors "cowards and liars" and challenged U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to be "man enough" to meet him in court.

"He wants to have a duel in the sun," says Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University. "If he had a leather glove, he would walk up to Fitzgerald and slap him across the face."

Blagojevich's loose-lipped style prompted one of his lawyers to quit. But some former associates wonder if the ex-governor is playing to potential jurors -- the endless patter, the reasoning goes, would show he's full of political bluster, not criminal intent.

Blagojevich has his own explanation.

"I ... have this need to tell everyone and anyone who would listen that I didn't do anything wrong and that I am innocent of any criminal wrongdoing ... ," he wrote in "The Governor." "It is unbearable to sit silently back and not assert the truth. And your innocence."

Blagojevich maintains he wasn't trying to sell or trade Obama's Senate seat. On one tape, though, it seems he has no intention of giving it away: "I've got this thing, and it's (bleeping) golden," he says.

He claims he planned to appoint Lisa Madigan, the state's attorney general, to the seat. In exchange, her father, House Speaker Michael Madigan, his nemesis, would push through a public works bill the governor wanted -- a routine political deal.

Both Madigans say that's news to them.

Blagojevich later appointed Roland Burris, creating a new furor when the newly named senator repeatedly changed his story about his contact with the governor's friends and aides before he was chosen.

Blagojevich -- a veteran of a few Golden Gloves bouts -- has long fashioned himself a fighter for the little guy. Now his opponent is the U.S. government.

So who is Milorad "Rod" Blagojevich?

He sees his life as the American dream that unraveled into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions: The son of a Serbian steelworker, he was raised in a blue-collar family, shined shoes, delivered pizzas, attended law school, became an assistant prosecutor. He climbed the political ladder, he says, only to fall victim to betrayal and jealousy.

In his book, he claims a spiritual kinship with a dizzying array of people:

Martha Stewart (like him, he says, a target of prosecutors). Jake LaMotta, as depicted by Robert DeNiro in "Raging Bull" (they trusted the wrong people). And George Bailey, the fictional small-town everyman in "It's a Wonderful Life" (both had awakenings).

Blagojevich critics say, though, if comparisons are to be made, it's to the rogue's gallery of politicians who've polluted state government.

Blagojevich replaced George Ryan, who left office in disgrace; he's now serving a 6 1/2-year racketeering sentence. In his first inaugural, Blagojevich vowed to "govern as a reformer." But instead of cleaning up the quagmire of corruption in Illinois, opponents say, he ended up waist-deep in it.

Blagojevich's political career -- as is often the case in Chicago -- began with family connections. His wife, Patti, is the daughter of Richard Mell, one of the last of a dying breed of Chicago Machine ward bosses who can marshal an army of precinct captains and deliver the vote on Election Day.

"Let me put it like this -- he would never have gotten out of the dugout into the batter's box if not for Dick Mell," says Green, the political scientist.

Mell tapped his son-in-law for the state legislature. Blagojevich dived right in, rallying his precinct captains with Shakespeare's "band of brothers" speech from "Henry V."

After four years in the legislature, Blagojevich won the congressional seat once held by Dan Rostenkowski, former chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

In his first gubernatorial bid, Blagojevich showed that beneath that Beatle-bob (circa '65) of hair -- he always liked to have a hairbrush handy -- there was the brain of a shrewd politician with a populist's touch.

"He's personable," Green says. "He speaks well on his feet. He's good-looking. ... And he was able to raise an awful lot of money."

He -- or maybe a strategist -- also understood how to count votes.

In the first Democratic primary -- his only close race -- Blagojevich faced Paul Vallas, widely praised for improving the troubled Chicago public schools as CEO. Knowing Vallas would be a tough opponent in the city, Blagojevich bombarded the far reaches of rural Illinois with TV ads, stressing his humble roots.

It worked.

Blagojevich was elected in 2002, but had his eye on a bigger prize: the White House.

Democrats were thrilled to have one of their own in the governor's chair for the first time in 26 years. The honeymoon was brief. Blagojevich soon made enemies -- Democrats and Republicans. He was an eager campaigner but, some say, he was bored with the nitty-gritty of governing.

"He enjoyed the sexy part of government, the glad-handing, the attention of followers," says Fritchey, the state lawmaker. "But at a certain point, you've got to get out of campaign mode and into governing. That's where he had difficulty."

Blagojevich immediately angered folks outside Chicago when he refused to move to the governor's mansion in Springfield; he says he didn't want to uproot his two young daughters. Critics says he was a fleeting presence in the capital, and when he was around, he didn't exactly dig in.

"His lack of attention to details and his work ethic were mind-boggling," says State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a veteran Republican lawmaker. "He didn't seem to want to make any difficult decisions."

Lou Lang, another Democratic state representative, says he was antagonistic.

"He went out of his way to offend legislators ... to blame them for all the ills of Illinois," Lang says. "He did all sorts of things to evade us, to do end runs, to stick it to us. He ran Illinois by press conference."

Blagojevich claims he's a "big picture" guy, not a detail man. In his book, he insists he didn't want to be "slowed down by having to spend my time mired in a bureaucracy that could be like quicksand."

But the man who says he wanted to avoid "petty squabbles" found himself in name-calling exchanges with lawmakers. They said he broke his word. He claimed it was lonely being governor. Tensions grew.

Once he ordered legislators to Springfield to vote on a critical transportation bill he wanted, then ended up attending a Chicago Blackhawks game 175 miles away. The measure was defeated.

He called lawmakers into special session so often they stopped coming. Then he sued House leader Madigan for not ordering them to attend. He won.

And when a new tax proposal he offered was defeated in the House by a 107-0 vote, he inexplicably declared "things went pretty well today."

For all his problems, his dreams of the White House endured until the 2004 Democratic National Convention when Obama was tapped to be the keynoter -- a star-making turn launching him on the path to the presidency.

Blagojevich, some recall, repeatedly joked how he was chosen to speak at 3 a.m.

"He realized not only was he not going to be the golden boy of the Democratic Party nationally, but he had been jumped over by a state senator from his own state," Fritchey says. "For a man who fancied himself the next JFK, Obama's pick to give the keynote address was devastating."

Still, Blagojevich, bolstered by a Democratic majority, racked up a list of accomplishments, even as the deficit more than doubled to $11 billion during his tenure.

He raised the minimum wage (angering some business groups), provided state-subsidized health insurance to every child in Illinois, banned discrimination of gays and lesbians, increased education spending, won approval to expand preschool and increased mammogram and cervical cancer screening for uninsured women.

"He did a lot of good," says Clifford Kelley, a former Chicago alderman who now is a talk show host on a black radio station and has welcomed Blagojevich as a guest. "Once two ladies called to thank him for saving their lives" with mammograms, he says. "I really think he cares about people."

By 2006 when he was facing re-election, Blagojevich already was under increasing scrutiny by the feds.

Agents were investigating patronage hiring and reports that money management firms were being squeezed to come up with payoffs and campaign cash if they wanted the lucrative business of investing state teachers pension money.

Blagojevich's relationship with Dick Mell, his father-in-law, also had soured. Mell had made an explosive claim that a Blagojevich adviser was arranging state appointments in exchange for campaign cash.

Mell retracted his accusation. Blagojevich blamed it on a dispute they were having over a landfill.

None of it dampened Blagojevich's fundraising.

He spent more than $26 million on his re-election (both the primary and general contests), compared with about $9 million for his Republican opponent, Judy Baar Topinka, then the state treasurer. He portrayed her as a crony of Ryan, the convicted ex-governor, and breezed to a second term.

She says she was overwhelmed by Blagojevich's TV ad blitz.

"I used to be stunned -- he could raise $2, $3, $4 million in a night," Topkina says. "If we made $5-to-$10,000, we thought we were doing well. I played by the rules, he didn't."

Topinka is referring to another part of the allegations -- that Blagojevich engaged in so-called pay-to-play politics, illegally pressuring potential contributors, including the head of a children's hospital.

"It's so embarrassing," Topinka says. "If you say you're from Illinois, people know about Rod Blagojevich in the worst possible way. They think we're a bunch of doofuses. How could we have elected someone like that? Not just once -- but twice."

Blagojevich plans to testify at his trial, one more step in his high-profile campaign. Will it succeed?

"I don't know if it's a plan or it's just goofy," Green says. "No one knows. I don't know if HE knows, but he didn't get this far by just being frivolous. And if it does work, he's a genius ... and I guarantee you he'll run for office again -- as a victim."


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