After sitting through the emotional resentencing of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich last week, I began to reminisce about the dramatic rise and fall of the talented but fatally flawed politician I’ve been watching for 30 years, first as a city and county prosecutor, then a state legislator, a Congressman, a governor, and now a penitentiary inmate.
A few reflections:
- Fear of flying helped Blago become our governor.
Not Blago’s fear, or the 1973 novel by Erica Jong—it was fiscal wizard Paul Vallas, whose flight phobia and campaign strategy cost him the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002 and changed the course of Illinois history.
Vallas, who ran Chicago’s public schools from 1995 to 2001 and handled city finances before that, was Blago’s main Democratic rival that year, but he didn’t spend enough time or money Downstate because he was afraid to fly and decided to concentrate on the heavily populated Chicago area.
That enabled the affable Blago, who happily flew from one Downstate city to another and pumped a million dollars into small market advertising, to capture two-thirds of the Democratic primary vote south of I-80.
It was just enough to offset Vallas’s margin in the Chicago area and give Blago a narrow primary victory.
Downstate votes, and Republican opponent Jim Ryan’s toxic last name—the same as the convicted previous governor, George Ryan—also helped Blago win the general election.
He had it all going for him, didn’t he? But then…
- As most of us know, Blago ran for governor as a reformer, pledging to clean up the mess his corrupt predecessor left behind.
It sounded good, but shortly after his victory in ‘02 Blago attended a meeting with several top aides, including nefarious fixer Tony Rezko, who described the illicit schemes that would fill campaign coffers and enrich all of them.
That stunning revelation, which came out in trial testimony, foreshadowed the pervasive corruption that would characterize the “reform” governor’s contemptible stewardship—a complete betrayal of 13 million Illinois residents.
- Blago’s wife Patti was curiously silent during the resentencing, letting her daughters and Blago himself, in a teleconference transmission from prison, argue for leniency.
Why the reticence? A trial witness testified that Patti got a couple hundred thousand dirty dollars laundered by Rezko, for real estate work she allegedly never performed.
She was never charged but her credibility was permanently stained.
- Credit or blame for Blago’s long prison sentence goes, in part, to the “other Amy”—not Blago’s daughter—but Amy St. Eve, an unfailingly nice and relentlessly tough federal prosecutor who became a federal judge.
In 2011 she sentenced Rezko to 10-and-a-half years in prison for his multiple misdeeds.
Her double-digit decision arguably influenced Blago trial Judge James Zagel, who set the deterrence bar even higher because, hey—doesn’t the boss have to pay a stiffer price than a henchman?
So the sentence was 14 years then, and it’s 14 years now.
And speaking of years, let’s go back to the 1980s, when Blago’s now-retired father-in-law, Dick Mell, then an influential Chicago alderman and powerful ward boss, started muscling his handsome, charismatic son-in-law up the political ladder.
Once he became governor Blago unwisely and ungraciously exiled and humiliated Mell, which indirectly precipitated Blago’s long decent into political hell—to eventually crash, burn and punish innocent victims, including their own family members.
Ironic, and sad—reminding me of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.
Or perhaps—and Mell cringes at this one—a political “Frankenstein” story.