Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested in their homes Tuesday morning, the subject of a sweeping federal criminal complaint alleging that “pay to play” was the cost of doing business under the governor’s administration. The two men were arrested in the early morning hours and brought to FBI headquarters in Chicago.
Blagojevich, a Democrat, has been under investigation for some time and a cloud of suspicion has been hanging over the governor. The fact that Governor Blagojevich allegedly broke the law is all the more amazing given that his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, was brought down in a corruption probe and is now serving time in federal prison. Blagojevich entered office declaring to restore the integrity of the governor’s office but, according to federal prosecutors, was willing to sell his office at the drop of a dime. At the heart of the 76 page complaint is the charge that Blagojevich was attempting to obtain favors in exchange for his support of candidates for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Barack Obama. As governor Blagojevich has the sole authority to fill the vacancy.
The much coveted Senate seat could provide another opportunity for a Black American to serve, as the election of Barack Obama to the presidency leaves a racial void in the upper house of Congress. One of the names that have been frequently mentioned since Election Day is Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., the national co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s campaign. Rep. Danny Davis’ name also surfaced at one time as a possibility. Given the controversy now over how Governor Blagojevich was attempting to “sell” the seat to the highest bidder, neither Jackson nor Davis is likely to want to seek the seat under these circumstances. With the other open seat in the Senate, that of New York Senator Hillary Clinton, unlikely to go to a Black person, the only hope to break the color barrier is the seat once held by Barack Obama.
In a memorable press conference U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald was harsh in his criticism of Blagojevich and incensed by the level of corruption federal investigators allegedly uncovered in surveillance recordings of the governor. Patrick declared, “It’s a sad day for government. A very sad day for Illinois government. Governor Blagojevich has taken us to a truly new low.” The prosecutor went on to charge that the governor attempted to sell the vacant Illinois U.S. Senate seat. He explained that authorities had tapped Blagojevich’s campaign office and his home telephone, and repeated some of the profanity laced comments of the governor. In one passage Patrick read, the governor, in reference to the vacant Senate seat, is alleged to have said “It’s a [expletive] valuable thing. You don’t give it away for [expletive] nothing.”
Patrick’s very pointed remarks were echoed by that of Robert Grant, FBI Special Agent in Charge. He said the day represented “a new low for politics in the state of Illinois.” Grant recalled that upon his arrival four years ago someone asked him if Illinois was the most corrupt state in the country. He suggested that not being in the other 49 states he really could not answer that question, even today. But Grant did say, “If it isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it’s certainly one hell of a competitor.”
Beyond the Senate seat the complaint alleges that Blagojevich literally put his office up for sale. The U.S. Attorney referenced an incident in which the governor discussed whether he could strip a children’s hospital of $8 million in state funds after the hospital chief refused to make a $50,000 political contribution. In another episode Blagojevich pondered whether state aid could be withheld from cash strapped Tribune Company unless the owner of The Chicago Tribune agreed to fire editorial writers who had been critical of his administration.
The scandal throws into chaos the selection of a successor to Barack Obama. By state law, the governor has the sole authority to make the appointment. If Blagojevich refuses to resign he will retain that authority. He can be impeached but the state legislature would have to act. They are not in session until next month and can only be called back into session by the governor. Further complicating matters is that an appointment by Blagojevich is now the kiss of death for any elected official given that in two years the person who succeeds Barack Obama in the Senate will have to run for a full term. What is likely to occur if Governor Blagojevich does not step down is that the person who accepts the Senate appointment will most likely be a “caretaker” until the election for a full term.
Blagojevich’s troubles are also likely to turn Illinois politics upside down. For all intent and purpose, his political career is over; even if he somehow avoids conviction. This means that the governorship is up for grabs. With the success of Obama statewide during his 2004 run for the Senate, the troubles of the governor might create an opportunity for a Black candidate to make a run at Springfield.