The Rise and Fall of Rod Blagojevich

The governor’s apparent misdeeds were audacious even by Illinois standards, Senior Editor David Moberg says during this interview with “Democracy Now!” co-host Juan Gonzales, which aired Wednesday.

David Moberg

Got ya: Indicted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Editor’s note: Longtime In These Times Senior Editor David Moberg appeared on Democracy Now!” on Dec. 10 to discuss the arrest and indictment of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Moberg sat down with Juan Gonzales, the show’s co-host, for the TV interview in Chicago. A transcript of their conversation, courtesy of Democracy Now!”, is below. Watch the original video interview here.]

It really was particularly blatant and audacious, especially since Blagojevich had a very clear understanding that he was being pursued by federal agents

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, stunning events here in Chicago the past few days with the Governor arrested, handcuffed, taken from his house at 6 a.m. in the morning by FBI agents, and this stunning criminal complaint by Patrick Fitzgerald.

And David Moberg, the senior editor for In These Times, joins us. And, David, your reaction, when you heard about this yesterday morning?

DAVID MOBERG: Well, I’m accustomed to politicians in Illinois being charged with all kinds of corruption, but this was quite astounding. It really was particularly blatant and audacious. And especially since Blagojevich had very clear understanding that he was being pursued by federal agents and had been almost since the start of his term, for him to continue, as the complaint alleges, to carry on this kind of activity is just really mind-boggling.

JG: Well, not only to continue, but apparently to escalate his activities, according to Patrick Fitzgerald.

DM: Right, yeah.

JG: Because they began actually a few weeks ago, began taping his conversations and actually had someone close to him wired, and the allegations, especially in terms of the sale of the Senate seat, with all the different kinds of schemes as to how he could benefit from having to appoint someone to replace Barack Obama.

DM: Right, yeah. Well, it’s particularly galling given the kind of image improvement that the state of Illinois politics had gotten from Barack Obama’s election. You know, to have it drawn back down into the mire again is particularly disturbing.

I think it was also escalated by the passage of this ethics reform law that would have restricted the contributions from contractors with contracts over $50,000. Illinois has never had particularly tough campaign finance laws, which is one of the reasons why this kind of corruption has been allowed to develop as much as it has. So, according to the US attorney, Blagojevich was escalating the kind of fundraising activity at the end of the year.

So these two things converged, this bleeping golden” opportunity of trying to make something out of the Senate seat or perhaps even to put himself in there, which gives an idea of the kind of ego that’s involved and kind of the recklessness, that he thought that, well, if he couldn’t get enough out of somebody else for appointing someone to the Senate, that he could go in as an appointment of himself and, in that position of being a senator, would be more protected from US indictments. So according to the wiretapping that was going on, he was even contemplating that he was going to be indicted and thinking about, you know, how he might be in a stronger position if he were in the US Senate.

JG: Well, one of the most intriguing aspects, especially for a publication like yours that follows the American labor movement so closely, was the allegation in the complaint that – I think it was on November 12th – that the Governor had a phone conversation with a top leader of the Service Employees International Union – the union official is not named – where he discussed one of his ideas for possibly utilizing the Senate seat to his – the appointment to the Senate seat to his benefit, was asking the SEIU to participate in a three-way deal with the incoming Obama administration, whereby he would appoint a favored candidate of Obama for the seat in exchange for the SEIU giving him a – there were two deals: one, a top job at Change to Win, the reform labor association, or alternatively helping to fund a nonprofit, which he would then run. And supposedly, the leader of SEIU, according to the complaint, says to the Governor, Well, I’ll run it up the flagpole.” But again, the leader is not mentioned. But it does seem that, to some degree, he was trying to use his ties in the labor movement to effect this bizarre deal.

DM: Right. Well, the SEIU is denying that there were these conversations that took place, but otherwise not providing much information about what went on. And, you know, at this point, anyway, there is certainly no evidence that they actually had taken steps beyond this, you know, alleged talking about running it up the flagpole.

But Blagojevich had a very kind of troubled relationship with the labor movement. There were certain unions, like SEIU, who supported him very strongly and continued to support him. And, in part, one of the things that they had actually gotten out of the Blagojevich administration was the right to organize homecare workers. So it was roughly 40,000, 50,000 members that they were able to get. And Blagojevich has occasionally done other good things for the labor movement. Just this week, as you probably noted in the course of this factory occupation, he came out just the day before the criminal complaint was filed and said that he was going to get the state of Illinois to withhold all business with Bank of America. So he’s been oddly sort of pro-labor in that regard. But in terms of dealing with public employees and public employee unions, he’s been as difficult for public workers as any Republican, perhaps more so. So he’s had a real mixed relationship with labor. And, you know, labor – many labor unions in Chicago had been part of the traditional political machine and sort of knew how the game was played in Chicago and Illinois, as nearly anybody who had been deeply involved in politics here would obviously know.

JG: Well, the other incredible allegation had to do with the Chicago Tribune

DM: Right.

JG: – that, supposedly, he and his chief of staff conspired to try to pressure the Tribune to fire several of their editorial writers, including John McCormick, an editorial page editor, because they had been writing all of these editorials criticizing him, and he was threatening to use a state financing agency to withhold support for the Tribune, which owns the Chicago Cubs, to sell Wrigley Field and get a tax benefit as a result of that. So he was using actually his state position as a club to extort firing – 

DM: Right.

JG: – of members of the Chicago Tribune staff. Your reaction to that?

DM: Oh, well, I mean, that’s quite incredible. And, once again, the complaint cites a reaction from the Tribune as the message having been heard, which was sort of ambiguous at the same level as the SEIU alleged comment about running it up the flagpole. So if you believe the complaint information, there was not an immediate rejection of this proposal, even though, obviously, the reporters themselves who are named – McCormick is still working at the Tribune.

But, you know, he’s had a hostile relationship with the press and particularly with the Tribune for a long time, going back even before he was governor. And, you know, part of his whole style of governing has been to run – is combating with everybody else. He started off his tenure as governor taking on the legislature, as if they were the enemy. And this was a Democratically controlled legislature. And Democrats in the state had thought, finally, now we have a Democratic governor after so many years of Republicans in power. And, you know, he started off just fighting with his own legislative leaders.

JG: And also, he was also seen initially as a reform candidate, wasn’t he?

DM: Right.

JG: He supposedly was running against the corruption represented by former Republican Governor Ryan.

DM: Right.

JG: Previous to that, he had run for the seat of Dan Rostenkowski – 

DM: Exactly.

JG: – who was also convicted of corruption. And so, he was considered a reformer.

DM: Yeah. Well, that was certainly the banner he campaigned under. And there was really, obviously, not much evidence that he took that agenda seriously, since this was not a question of him having been in office for a while and sort of succumbed to all the seductions of power. Apparently, according to everything the US attorney has on him, that he was beginning these operations from the very get-go.

JG: And your sense of what the impact of this might be in terms of Barack Obama? Clearly, David Axelrod, one of the chief advisers, late last night said he had been mistaken when he told a reporter some weeks ago that Obama had been in conversations with the Governor about the Senate seat. And he’s now denying that. He said he was mistaken. Your sense whether there will be any impact on Obama of this arrest?

DM: Well, in the complaint itself, there is a discussion about approaching Obama, and, you know, the complaint says Blagojevich, you know, in his usual sort of explicit expletives, was denouncing Obama for not having been willing to make a deal. So, at least at the level of the kind of complaint information, Obama comes out looking pretty clean.

But that’s one of the problems: once you get somebody who’s as tarnished as he is, if you even get within the same room, you begin to get suspect. And that’s going to be one of the things that’s going to probably affect a lot of the candidates who were looking forward to being named as US senator, such as Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., who had met with Blagojevich. And simply the fact of having met with him shouldn’t implicate anybody, but under these circumstances it’s going to have kind of a tarnishing effect on everybody.

I don’t know. It had looked before like things were very secure for Democrats. Name a Democratic candidate to fill out the remainder of the term, and then, as incumbent, would be in a strong position probably to run. Illinois is still a fairly strongly Democratic state, but whether now there’s such a backlash against all this that a Democrat has trouble is hard to tell at this point. I think that it still should be a safe seat. But that would actually be, politically, on a national level, one of the worst outcomes, if, in the wake of all this, that a Republican took that seat.

JG: Well, we’ll have to – we’ll be keeping tabs on this, a possibility that there may now be a special election – 

DM: Right.

JG: – for this seat. The state legislature will have to be deciding that over the next few days.

I want to thank you, Dave Moberg, senior editor for In These Times, for being with us. And when we return from break, we’ll be looking at another major story here in Chicago: the fight of the workers at Republic Windows & Doors, who have been sitting in their factory now for several days.

The original transcript of this interview can be found at www​.democ​ra​cynow​.org.

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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