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Blagojevich Scandal Shakes Politics in Illinois and Beyond

December 10, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Officials are considering a special election for Illinois' vacant Senate seat after the corruption charges levied against Gov. Rod Blagojevich. A panel examines what the case says about politics in Illinois and beyond.

JIM LEHRER: Political corruption in the state of Illinois. Here’s what the head of the FBI office in Chicago said about that yesterday.

ROBERT GRANT, Chicago FBI: A lot of you who were in the audience asked me the question of whether or not Illinois is the most corrupt state in the United States. I don’t have 49 other states to compare it with, but I can tell you one thing: If it isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it’s certainly one hell of a competitor.

JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill takes it from there.

GWEN IFILL: So what do the allegations against the Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, tell us about Illinois politics and politics in general?

For that, we turn to presidential historian and Chicago native, Michael Beschloss; NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW in Chicago; and Laura Washington, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Let’s go to all of our Chicago experts, starting with you, Elizabeth Brackett. What do we know new today about this very complicated case?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour correspondent: Well, the first thing we know is that Governor Blagojevich thought it was a regular, ordinary day as he went off to work. He was surrounded by television cameras; that may have been the only difference, stayed at work all day. An aide said he did some business for the state and then left at 4:30.

A top aide, though, did resign today. There was no explanation of that — Deputy Gov. Bob Greenlee — as to why he resigned, but he resigned.

The other big news of the day is you had in the news summary was that Jesse Jackson’s attorney — Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s attorney identified him as Senate candidate number five, and that’s significant because, in the complaint from the government yesterday, they said that Gov. Blagojevich was recorded as saying that an associate of Senate candidate five — now we know it was Jesse Jackson, Jr. — he identified him as pay-to-play.

He said, “You know, he’d raise $500,000 for me. Then the other guy would raise a million dollars if I made him a senator.”

So that obviously was very detrimental to Jesse Jackson, who had the news conference, as you saw, was adamant about the fact that he never sent an emissary to Gov. Blagojevich, that he was innocent of any wrongdoing.

Now, we do know that he will go on Friday to the U.S. attorney’s office to talk to Patrick Fitzgerald.

The other news of the day was that President-elect Barack Obama, his voice, he joined it with many others calling for the governor to resign.

GWEN IFILL: But no more discussion today about impeachment, resignation, or a special election?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Oh, there was a lot of discussion about all of that today. The calls for impeachment are growing. There is now a bill introduced into the Illinois legislature calling for impeachment in the House. The House and the Senate in Illinois are going back on Monday for special sessions. They will begin to consider impeachment.

They will also consider another bill that has been placed in the legislature that would call for a special election for a new senator, so there’s a lot of talk about both.

'Even the most cynical' shocked

Laura Washington
Chicago Sun-Times
The pay-to-play style of government is a long -- has a long and not necessarily time-honored, but a very long history, not only in Chicago, but in Illinois.

GWEN IFILL: Laura Washington, how much does this shake up Chicago politics as Chicago politics can be shook?

LAURA WASHINGTON, Chicago Sun-Times: It's tough to shake up the cynics in Chicago. I think the thing that surprised people most was not that Blagojevich was indicted, not that he was in this kind of trouble, but the blatant -- the hubris with which he was thinking about, the kinds of deals that he was talking about, what was on those tapes, the imagining or the supposed theories and supposed strategies he had to try to sell the seat.

I think that shocked even the most cynical in Chicago. But the pay-to-play style of government is a long -- has a long and not necessarily time-honored, but a very long history, not only in Chicago, but in Illinois.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like a tortured history. But is it a current -- is it something that's going on currently, as well, or is this just something people say, "Ah, well, Chicago, what do you expect?"

LAURA WASHINGTON: Money talks in Chicago politics and has for a long, long time. A most recent example is the fight to replace Emil Jones as the State Senate head, Illinois State Senate.

There was just an election within the State Senate to replace him, and it was very contentious. And the top candidates all went out and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to give to other state senators, presumably to support them and encourage them to vote for them.

Of course, there's no discussion of a quid pro quo, but we all know that if you're raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and giving it to other senators, it's because you want to curry favor. That's business as usual, and people don't even blink an eye about that kind of thing in Chicago.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Beschloss, let's talk about a little contemporary history tonight. Is this something in the water in Illinois or in Chicago?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: A little bit. And thank you for mentioning I'm a Chicago native. I was born there, grew up there. I'm a Chicagoan even on the bad days like this.

I think maybe, at lower levels -- I was having dinner last year with a former governor of Illinois, an honest one who did not go to prison, I said, you know, two governors did go to prison for things they did in office.

Otto Kerner in the 1960s was governor. He went to prison for essentially trading favors for getting something back, money, racing dates, and an exit on an expressway near someone's racetrack.

And then George Ryan much later, a secretary of state and governor, went to prison for taking money for doing things like giving people truck driver's licenses.

GWEN IFILL: And he's there now.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He's there now. And my governor friend said, you know, a lot of this -- it happens at the local level. It's bad enough, but then they become governor. They don't realize they're under a different level of scrutiny.

But having said all of this, what Rod Blagojevich is accused of doing puts all of this into shame. No one ever in Illinois or other places in recent times had evidence of selling a Senate seat.

One quick thing: The Constitution originally did not have direct election of senators. They said the states should choose senators by their legislatures.

The reason why the 17th Amendment in 1913 changed all that was that the Senate was brought so many cases where people said, "This guy became a senator because of bribery and intimidation," they felt you needed direct election. Interestingly, look what happened when you did not have direct election this week.

Questions about the investigation

Elizabeth Brackett
There is a question of who it was that may have talked to the U.S. attorney, to Patrick Fitzgerald, about some of these offers that were allegedly being given by Blagojevich in terms of trying to buy a Senate seat.

GWEN IFILL: Elizabeth Brackett, what do we know about the other people or the other candidates who have said they have been interested in this office? We saw Jesse Jackson, Jr., today, but certainly he's not alone.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Absolutely. And I have talked to almost all of the other candidates who are mentioned and who have been talked about as a potential Senate candidate.

Two of them, Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Rep. Danny Davis, both said that they did talk to Gov. Blagojevich and that nothing untoward was offered. There was no mention of quid pro quo.

Alexi Giannoulias, who's the state treasurer, also said the same thing.

I have not talked to Rep. Luis Gutierrez, but none of the people that are mentioned as a Senate candidate -- that includes Lisa Madigan, also, who's the attorney general in Illinois -- have said they were ever offered anything like a quid pro quo.

So, you know, we don't know -- and Patrick Fitzgerald was very careful to say that none of those people who are mentioned -- whose names weren't mentioned, but who are named by letter in these complaints -- should be considered under suspicion.

GWEN IFILL: What about the Obama campaign? There was a little back-and-forth yesterday in which David Axelrod had been quoted as saying that, indeed, Barack Obama had talked to the governor about his Senate seat and then he put out another statement saying he misspoke.

Is there any evidence that has surfaced today that there's any real connection between the Obama campaign and these charges?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Actually, David Axelrod made that statement earlier, I believe, about a month ago or so on Fox News, but there hasn't been any further developments on that.

There is a question of who it was that may have talked to the U.S. attorney, to Patrick Fitzgerald, about some of these offers that were allegedly being given by Blagojevich in terms of trying to buy a Senate seat. There was some speculation that maybe it was Rahm Emanuel. Rahm Emanuel yesterday denied that, that he was not the one that had gone to the U.S. attorney.

But there was some -- somebody was an intermediary. When Valerie Jarrett was first said -- said publicly that she would like to be considered as a U.S. senator, as we know, she was then named to Sen.-elect Obama's White House staff.

So there's a question of who talked to whom during those negotiations that we don't know the answer to yet.

GWEN IFILL: Don't know.

Scandal tarnishes Democratic party

GWEN IFILL: Laura Washington, does this represent or does this have the potential of representing a power shift in Illinois politics? Do Republicans have a chance to position themselves to walk down the middle here, because the Democratic Party is in such disarray?

LAURA WASHINGTON: I think an atom bomb has exploded in Illinois politically because of this indictment or because of what's happening with Blagojevich.

It puts a shadow over so many formerly reputable elected officials, folks who had been talked about as possible Senate contenders, other people who are associated with those people.

Now you're talking about having a wide-open special election, which, by the way, was something that everyone's for now, but up until yesterday, when a very tainted governor was actually brought out in handcuffs, no one was for a special election before. Now they're all for this special election.

That means that anyone can run. That means that someone like, for example, U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a very popular north shore congressman who just won re-election and is considered a moderate in the Republican Party, has already expressed interest in running. There are other reputable people in both the Republican and Democratic Parties that are going to step out there.

And I think it raises some question about the keep-the-seat movement, which was underway before this happened. There was a big movement in attitude in the African-American community that this seat should remain in black hands, should be occupied by an African-American for historic reasons and because of Barack Obama.

And now, with a wide-open playbook in terms of this Senate race, there's going to be so much competition that that's not as likely to happen.

The silver lining of a scandal

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
But we Illinoisans cannot get away from the fact that two of our governors went to prison for things they did in office. Also, Dan Walker, who served in the early 1970s, went to prison for things he did after he was governor.

GWEN IFILL: Michael, we all know about -- talk about machine politics in Chicago, but surely Chicago is not unique. This is something which has happened in cities across the country without such spectacular impact.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's right. I guess I should defend the honor of Chicago a little bit. It does happen in other places.

Spiro Agnew, when he was governor of Maryland, you know, took a lot of cash both there and as vice president, later on had to resign to avoid going to prison. It does happen in other places.

But we Illinoisans cannot get away from the fact that two of our governors went to prison for things they did in office. Also, Dan Walker, who served in the early 1970s, went to prison for things he did after he was governor.

But, you know, Laura was talking about this being an atom bomb in Illinois politics. I think she's totally right, and there's a precedent for that, which is that Otto Kerner was sent to prison by a U.S. attorney named Jim Thompson, a Republican. Thompson himself ran for governor, won 1976. The Republicans owned the governorship of Illinois for almost 30 years.

GWEN IFILL: But does this put a stake in the heart of this kind of corruption, when something this big happens, when this kind of atom bomb goes off?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It does. You know, for instance, President-elect Obama encouraged the state legislature of Illinois recently to pass an ethics law. It's a very good thing.

But the way that this kind of corruption has been reduced in Illinois has not been so much from laws but from prosecutors like Thompson, who scare politicians into thinking that they might not get away with this kind of stuff. And I think, if you had to look at a silver lining to what we're seeing this week, that might be one of them.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Beschloss, Laura Washington, Elizabeth Brackett, thank you all very much.