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Did we deserve Blago scandal?
Illinois voters apparently ignored feds closing in on Blagojevich
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

Republican governor candidate Judy Baar Topinka, left, is greeted by Gov. Rod Blagojevich just before he delivered his State of State address in January 2006.

 

Daily Herald Photo | 2006

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Published: 12/15/2008 12:07 AM

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In the fall of 2006, voters could have read in newspapers or seen on TV that federal agents were investigating Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The Chicago Democrat's key confidant and fundraiser, Tony Rezko, was indicted by federal prosecutors for trading on his clout with Blagojevich to land bribes and campaign cash for the governor.

Blagojevich's first four-year term was marred by allegations of cronyism, bribery, illegal hiring practices and charges against top insiders.

Now that he has been officially charged with corruption - charges his attorney says are false - some are wondering just what 1.7 million voters were thinking on Election Day in 2006 when they gave Blagojevich another four years running the state of Illinois.

Better Government Association director Jay Stewart says voters simply weren't paying attention to the signs as Republicans struggled with their own scandal-tainted image.

"The Republicans still labored under the grim shadow of Gov. George Ryan," Stewart said of the man Blagojevich succeeded and vilified.

On Tuesday, the years of allegations, innuendo and newspaper investigations culminated in Blagojevich's arrest. Federal prosecutors say they bugged his campaign office and tapped his home phone for more than a month and allegedly discovered a governor juggling multiple corruption schemes as he tried to sell off his authority and taxpayer resources to enrich himself and advance his political career.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar says the charges are startling, but no one should really be shocked Blagojevich was arrested.

"To me it was pretty obvious this was eventually going to happen," says Edgar. "It is just to me unfortunate, because what happened now shouldn't come as a surprise."

The irony is that Blagojevich rose to power by using Ryan against Republican challengers, both in his first campaign in 2002 and his second in 2006.

Meanwhile, Blagojevich's aggressive fundraising tactics - now the subject of allegations in his federal charges - provided him with a large pool of cash to make his campaign propaganda louder than the concerns about his own scandals.

"I should have beaten the man," says former Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, who was outspent more than 2-1 in her 2006 bid against Blagojevich. "It was all about money."

One of Blagojevich's top campaign ads included old footage of Topinka dancing the polka with Ryan. Another spot that ran repeatedly used the catchphrase "What is she thinking?" to paint the boisterous politician as mentally unbalanced.

These days it is Blagojevich's mental state being called into question.

Topinka said she simply couldn't keep up with Blagojevich's unprecedented fundraising. He raised and spent more than $26 million in the campaign. She mustered $11 million.

While Blagojevich was pulling in millions of dollars a night at massive fundraising bashes, Topinka said she was lucky to land $25,000 at an event.

Critics contend Blagojevich was selling out the state to raise so much cash. Prosecutors allege he was caught on tape plotting to strong arm a highway contractor, lobbyist and executive of a children's hospital in a dash to raise cash before a new ethics law takes effect on Jan. 1.

"There was the illustration of enormous pay-to-play," says Illinois Republican Chairman Andy McKenna. "And that allowed him to destroy an elected official's reputation. She didn't have the money to compete."

Without the specter of Ryan and Blagojevich's cash advantage, McKenna says perhaps voters would have paid more attention to strong accusations at the time that Blagojevich was corrupt.

"After all," McKenna says, "this was not a person who was very secretive about his behavior."