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Columnist
The part of the wild and wacky Blago will be played by silence
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 7/22/2010 12:02 AM

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At 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, an hour before the sun is up, 74-year-old Liz Francisco of Algonquin slips into her car for the first leg of her pilgrimage to see former Gov. Rod Blagojevich take the witness stand and finally give the people of Illinois the truth he has been boldly promising to deliver ever since he was arrested in 2008 on charges of fraud, extortion and conspiring to sell a U.S. Senate seat.

"I drive and leave my car in a mall in Schaumburg," Francisco says. "I take a bus to the Rosemont station and take the train."

Had she needed to add a plane to complete her odyssey, she would have done that, too. Even then, with the crowd crushing the courtroom to catch Blago, all the tickets for the public are gone so early that people who arrive three-and-half hours before the courtroom opens are still too late for tickets.

"I used my pass," Francisco says of the free transportation passes for seniors that were championed by Blago. "He was the one who gave us that. If not, I spend maybe $10 to get here."

Why is she here at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago?

"I want to witness," Francisco says, adding she says she hopes and predicts that Blagojevich will not be convicted of any of the two dozen felony counts he faces.

"Even though he did a lot of crazy things, he didn't get the money," Francisco says, echoing an argument also made by Blagojevich's defense team. "If he didn't have a big mouth, maybe he didn't get this thing (criminal trial). He talks too much."

Blago himself comes to that same conclusion when he follows his senior lawyer's advice and chooses not to testify on his own behalf.

"I've learned a lot of lessons from this whole experience, and perhaps maybe the biggest lesson I've learned is that I talk too much," Blago says before a gang of press in the courthouse lobby.

"I could have sworn he was going to testify," says Pat Pontrelli, a 71-year-old retired truck driver from Arlington Heights who has spent so many days at this trial that Blagojevich greets him by name. "I'm disappointed in him for not testifying. If you are innocent, you should testify. But I still think he's innocent."

Blago and his lawyers say the only reason he didn't testify is because the government didn't prove anything and there is no need to even put up a defense.

Some courtroom watchers speculate that Blago might have lost his testicular virility after watching his brother and co-defendant Rob Blagojevich fight his way through a grueling and sometimes contentious grilling from federal prosecutors. Others, having watched Blago babble through TV morning shows and his stints as a walking punch line for late-night comedians, think the defense team simply thought Blago might say something stupid.

"He's his own worst enemy. He makes himself look ridiculous," says Beverly Kiele, 80, of Oak Park, who comes to this trial with friend Jeanette Bartels, 69, of Lisle.

"I would have loved to see him testify," Bartels says, grinning in anticipation of that spectacle.

"Blago's the man," adds a chuckling Robert Pavlovic, 25, of Mount Prospect, who smiles as he explains that he and buddy Luke Jankovic, 27, make the trip in part because of a shared Serbian heritage with the former guv. "Yeah, he's a character. Blago for the people, or so he says."

They are bummed not to hear Blago testify.

"It's bad for us, but for his case, it's probably good," suggests Jankovic, who is a student at Marshall Law School.

People who watched an inept and sputtering Blago get fired on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" shudder when they think of him answering much more difficult questions on the witness stand.

"He was good, but he's a dumbbell," Francisco says, adding that she's ticked at Trump for "showing the whole world that our governor is a dumbbell."

Blago, she adds, is more than just an empty head.

"I got interested in this guy because he's so good looking. He attracts me," Francisco swoons. "I hope he will not be guilty."

Denied the chance to see Blago testify, friends Bartels and Kiele still make a day of it with lunch and sightseeing. A few years back, they came downtown to watch a symphony rehearsal and catch lunch at the Art Institute before grabbing seats at the trial of George Ryan, Blago's predecessor. Ryan, who didn't testify at his 2006 trial, was convicted and sent to prison. Bartels offers a sly grin as she makes a sad commentary on our state: "We go to all our governors' trials."