Rod Blagojevich hoped to be living in federal housing at this point in his life. But not in Littleton, Colorado. In Washington, D.C.
About a month after Blagojevich was elected governor of Illinois in November 2002, I went to a fundraiser for 47th Ward Committeeman Ed Kelly. Held at a banquet hall, it was like a three-dot gossip column come to life, as the emcee recited the names of all the pols who’d come to pay their respects. (“Judge Murphy is with us tonight … and here, from the Water Reclamation District .…”) I’d been dragged there by a punch-drunk, putty-nosed boxer named Johnny Lira, a.k.a., the World Class Pug. Johnny had once fought for the lightweight title but now dabbled in politics.
As we circulated among tables of sewer workers who’d been forced to buy $100 tickets, I ran into an old ward heeler who’d gotten his start in the organization of Blagojevich’s father-in-law, Ald. Richard Mell.
“I’m going to be stumping for Rod in New Hampshire in 2008,” the man said.
Not to brag about my political instincts, but I laughed at the prospect of President Blagojevich. At the time, though, Hot Rod was the Democratic Party’s biggest star. After more than two decades of Republican crooks in the governor’s mansion, the voters of Illinois had decided it was time to give a Democratic crook a chance. As it turned out, another Illinois politician ended up stumping in New Hampshire. But in 2002, Barack Obama was an obscure state senator who was still recovering from his ass-whipping in a congressional race two years before.
Even as hungry young Democrats in Springfield, Blagojevich and Obama were suspicious of each other. And not just because both wanted to be president. They represented two different strains in Chicago politics. Blagojevich, raised in a dreary apartment by a steelworker father, considered Obama an elitist egghead from Hyde Park, the academic ghetto surrounding the University of Chicago.
Obama thought Blagojevich was a vapid machine-politics hack. As a loyal Democrat, though, Obama sat in on Blagojevich's campaign strategy sessions, where he learned to emulate the candidate's two-handed approach to politicking: the right hand shakes, the left goes for the wallet. Obama became a more aggressive fundraiser after watching in awe as Blagojevich collected $24 million during his first run for governor.
Obama even used Blagojevich as an example of how an ethnically exotic candidate could succeed in the Midwest. “There are some who might say that somebody named Barack Obama can’t be elected senator in the state of Illinois,” Obama would tell audiences. “They’re probably the same folks who said that a guy named Rod Blagojevich couldn’t be elected governor of the state of Illinois.”
The two liberals collaborated on a bill that added 20,000 children to the state’s health insurance plan. But Blagojevich could never hide his envy of Obama’s rise, mocking him as “Baaary Obaaama” in an exaggerated Chicago accent. After Obama’s roof-raiser at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Blagojevich told him, “Great speech, Barack. But remember, this is as good as it gets.”
That envy undid Blagojevich. As Obama prepared to leapfrog Blagojevich and move into the White House, the governor, desperate to be taken along to Washington, tried to work out a deal that would land him a Cabinet appointment in exchange for the Senate seat.
Maybe Obama had to end up in the White House and Blagojevich had to end up in prison, just to illustrate the bright and dark strains in Illinois politics.
On the one hand, we’re the Land of Lincoln, the state that won the Civil War, freed the slaves and produced the first black president. On the other hand, we’re the most corrupt state in America, according to a recent academic study. When our politicians succeed, they succeed bigger than anyone else’s. And when they fail, they fail bigger too.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!