Former Illinois Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich has just been sentenced to 14 years in prison. He faced the judge and jury, and while maintaining his innocence throughout most of the trial process and coming off as unapologetic, he struck quite a different tone today when in front of the “executioner.”
“I’m here convicted of crimes. The jury decided I was guilty. I am accepting of it. I acknowledge it, and I of course am unbelievably sorry for it,” Blagojevich said. “I am responsible. I caused it all. I’m not blaming anybody. I was the governor, and I should have known better. And I am just so incredibly sorry. My life is in ruins. I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions.”
Unfortunately for Blagojevich, it was too little, too late. The prosecution sought 15-20 years for the former Illinois governor who sought to solicit Barack Obama’s senate seat for campaign contributions in the wake of Obama’s 2008 presidential victory. Those recorded tapes of the solicitation play out just like an episode of Kelsey Grammer’s Starz TV show Boss.
This will close another sad chapter of Chicago “machine politics” in this state’s long history of corruption. Blagojevich’s immediate predecessor, Republican George Ryan, has been serving time in a federal prison since November 2007 for bribery and lying to federal investigators. He’s not scheduled to be released till July of 2013. Otto Kerner, Jr. and Dan Walker round out the four Illinois governors who’ve been convicted of white collar crimes since 1968.
Quite a decline from the days of ol’ Honest Abe here in the Land of Lincoln.
The question I get asked most often as a resident of Chicago is, “Why did Blagojevich get in trouble? I mean, doesn’t everybody ‘play the game’ there?”
Indeed, you don’t have to look too deep in our history to find out how the Chicago machine has worked in this state. The action that may have sealed his fate might not have been the crimes itself as much as the fact that he may have made too many political enemies.
The Madigans never liked him. Let me step back for those of you not familiar with the Illinois political scene. Mike Madigan has been speaker of the Illinois House since 1983 (with a brief interruption in 1995 and 1996 when the GOP had a House majority that was short lived), is Chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, and who’s daughter, Lisa, is currently the state attorney general. Yeah, he’s got a lot of influence.
Madigan and Blagojevich clashed over Blagojevich’s proposals for increased state spending. Blagojevich blamed the 2007 budget crisis on Madigan, releasing a statement that said, “The way to be able to finally get budgets that achieve the objective of health care and education for families is to get Madigan to be a Democrat again and stop being a George Bush Republican.” Madigan refused to meet with Blagojevich for more than two months after Blagojevich introduced the budget; rather than the proposed $5 billion in increased spending, he recommended $1 billion, funded by the ending of a tax break.
The relationship between Blagojevich and Madigan hit its low in October 2007, when Blagojevich fired Bronwyn Rains, wife of Madigan’s chief of staff Timothy Mapes, from her position of psychologist with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Blagojevich claims to have based this on Rains’ educational background, but she had worked for the department for 24 years with no record of a problem; one observer called the fallout “nuclear war.”
On December 15, 2008, Madigan announced that he was taking steps to initiate impeachment proceedings against Blagojevich. He named members of the Illinois House of Representatives to a special committee charged with investigating whether Governor Blagojevich engaged in conduct, including the Rod Blagojevich corruption charges, that was subject to possible impeachment charges the House can bring. After the committee reported, Madigan presided over the House deliberations which unanimously voted out the first impeachment of an Illinois Governor. Subsequently, the Illinois Senate tried and removed Governor Blagojevich from office, also by a unanimous vote.
Blagojevich’s own father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell, made enemies with him as well. Mell was very instrumental behind Blagojevich’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 2002. However, in 2005, Blagojevich and Mell had a public feud when Blagojevich shut down a landfill owned by a distant cousin of Blagojevich’s wife Patti for environmental problems. It was later revealed that Mell had served as an advisor to the cousin. Legislation was eventually passed giving the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency more authority over landfills and preventing relatives of top Illinois officials from owning them.
Did Blagojevich get everything he deserved or was he a victim of Chicago Machine politics? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. But this much is clear - while another Illinois convicted politician may be out of power and sent to jail, the Chicago Machine is still very much alive and well, and the practices that got Blagojevich in trouble will mostly likely continue to go on and thrive in a city that’s all too familiar with corruption.