Illinois Scandal Rocks Politics

Posted December 9, 2008 at 6:54pm

Federal corruption charges brought against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) on Tuesday threw the process for filling President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat into turmoil, with Democrats in Washington, D.C., and Illinois calling for a special election to pick Obama’s replacement.

Leaders in the Illinois House and Senate plan to reconvene their chambers as early as Monday to consider legislation that would change the way that a vacant Senate is filled in the Land of Lincoln — from a gubernatorial appointment to a special election. Given the cloud of corruption surrounding Blagojevich and the appointment process, Illinois sources say the special election legislation is likely to pass.

Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested Tuesday and charged with selling the Senate appointment, among other “pay to play” schemes — part of an ongoing federal investigation into the two-term governor and former Congressman.

The scandal has wide-ranging implications — not just for Blagojevich and the people who want to replace Obama in the Senate, but for the president-elect; his designated White House chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who is Blagojevich’s successor in Congress; and for a host of other politicians in the Land of Lincoln.

Republicans quickly sought to exploit the scandal, suggesting Obama’s Senate seat represents a real pickup opportunity for them if he is replaced in a special election.

At a Chicago news conference Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was quick to say Obama and other officials referenced in the charging documents were not implicated in the scandal. But he was withering in his criticism of Blagojevich, calling the governor’s conduct “appalling.”

“The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” Fitzgerald said.

Support for a special election started on Capitol Hill on Tuesday when Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called for a special contest to fill Obama’s Senate seat, followed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) suggestion that “a different process” that does not involve Blagojevich must be used to fill the vacancy.

Blagojevich still holds the office until he resigns or is impeached, which could mean he could be faced with having to sign or veto special election legislation next week.

At least one Illinois state House Democrat reportedly plans to begin impeachment proceedings as soon as possible. What’s more, a spokesman for state Speaker Mike Madigan (D) said that if the governor were to veto the special election legislation, the Legislature would likely be able to override the veto under the circumstances.

But according to one published report, a statewide special election could cost as much as $50 million to administer — and that could give state lawmakers pause in these hard economic times.

A special election could throw a safe seat for Democrats into total chaos, plus give Republicans a rare shot at a statewide office. And this time the usual suspects for a statewide bid could actually be suspects in the federal probe.

Blagojevich named some potential Senate appointments in his phone conversations taped by federal investigators, according to the affidavit. In particular, Blagojevich discussed one potential appointee, known as “Senate Candidate 5” in the complaint, as being willing to raise money for the governor if he appointed that candidate to the Senate seat.

“I think that some of the leading contenders may be a little tainted by this process,” one Illinois Democratic consultant said. “What it does do is give Republicans a shot.”

If there is a special Senate election, battle-tested Rep. Mark Kirk (R) would be a formidable candidate, sources said, because of his moderate profile and ability to raise lots of money quickly — a plus for a special election that could be held within the next few months, depending on any legislation that Illinois officials pass.

Incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said in a statement that Blagojevich’s actions taint all Democrats who are interested in ensuring that Obama’s vacated seat remains in Democratic hands.

“Virtually every top tier Democrat mentioned as a potential candidate for the seat is now under a cloud of suspicion, which will exacerbate their problems for the future,” one senior Republican Senate aide said.

The list of potential statewide Democratic candidates include Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny Davis and Jan Schakowsky, all of whom have expressed interest in the statewide appointment. But those three Members were quick to distance themselves Tuesday from a governor with whom they eagerly sought meetings in recent weeks to discuss the appointment.

Schakowsky was among the first in the delegation to call for Blagojevich’s resignation.

“It is in the best interest of the State of Illinois that Governor Blagojevich resign from office immediately,” Schakowsky said in a statement. “If he does not resign, the state legislature should reconvene for a special session immediately and begin impeachment proceedings against Governor Blagojevich.”

Schakowksy told Roll Call recently that she discussed the Senate appointment with Blagojevich on Nov. 18, calling it a “long conversation” and confirming that she was one of a “number of people he’s considering” for the appointment.

Jackson, in particular, would be a formidable candidate in a Democratic primary for a special election because of his race, famous name and ability to raise money — that is, if he can distance himself from Blagojevich.

“If these allegations are proved true, I am outraged by the appalling, pay-to-play schemes hatched at the highest levels of our state government,” Jackson said in a statement.

Jackson was the last known candidate to meet with Blagojevich before federal agents arrested the governor early Tuesday morning.

“As reported, I met with Governor Blagojevich at the state building in Chicago for the first time in years,” Jackson continued in his statement. “During [Monday’s] 90-minute meeting, I shared with the Governor my hopes and unique qualifications for succeeding President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate.”

Davis, whom Blagojevich said publicly was under consideration for the Senate appointment, said in an interview that he was “devastated” to hear about the governor’s arrest, but he stopped short of calling for his resignation, saying he was “innocent until proven guilty.”

Davis, however, did proclaim his innocence and that of his colleagues in the governor’s alleged scheme. He said he was “absolutely certain” that he was not one of the candidates mentioned in affidavit, nor were any of his Congressional colleagues.

“In any of the dealings of the governor, they’ve always been up and open,” Davis said. “There’s never been any quid pro quo suggested, asked for in relationship to the Senate seat or anything else I’ve discussed with the governor.”

Davis said he would be open to the idea of a special election for the seat.

Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), who had not been discussed as a possible Senate appointment, said the idea of a special election has “a lot of merit” as a means to restore confidence in the process. But he cautioned it could be costly and postpone the selection of Obama’s replacement at a time when the state needs full representation in Congress.

“The clock’s ticking here on us,” he said.

Hare said those considered on the short list for the Senate seat should not be tainted by the scandal.

“There are a number of people who are very qualified from our delegation that have applied and asked the governor to consider them. And I don’t think they should be disqualified because they made the application,” he said.

If special election legislation is not signed into law, the future of the Illinois Senate seat could rest in the hands of a man who is relatively unknown in Washington, D.C.: Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D), who has a discordant relationship with Blagojevich and has already called for his resignation.

If Blagojevich resigns or is impeached, Quinn would be elevated to governor and could name the next Senator. According to Illinois sources, Quinn, a veteran political reformer, is closest to Davis in the Illinois Congressoinal delegation.

“My relationship with Pat Quinn has been outstanding for, oh, I guess, more than 20 years,” Davis said. “Pat Quinn lives in my district.”

But according to at least one Quinn ally in the state legislature, the lieutenant governor would likely support a special election to fill the Senate seat. Quinn’s office did not respond to phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.

“He’s a populist, and I think he would probably support it in any circumstances,” the Democrat said. “He’s not a power-grabber.”

The Democrat called Quinn a “loner” who has some “good ideas” but has not produced many results through the years.

“He’s a progressive policy [supporter] except that most of us see him as a gadfly who hasn’t necessarily accomplished much,” the legislator said.

David M. Drucker and Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.