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Senate deal may make winner out of Watson
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/27/2007 12:09 AM

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SPRINGFIELD -- Earlier this month, Gov. Rod Blagojevich boarded a state plane bound for the most unlikely of places, tiny Greenville Municipal Airport downstate, for a meeting with the most unlikely of people -- Senate Republican leader Frank Watson.

After all, Watson is the same lawmaker whom Blagojevich roundly and repeatedly criticized this year, once telling fellow Democrats to hurry up and get a budget done so the "conservative Republican" wouldn't get a seat at the negotiating table.

And this is the same Watson whose Republican ranks were so narrowed in last November's elections that some considered the GOP on the brink of political irrelevancy and it was time for someone else to lead the Senate Republicans.

Yet here was a Chicago governor traveling to the lonely downstate hometown of the Republican leader with arguably the smallest say at the Capitol, to implore him to help approve a casinos-for-construction deal that would invest billions in schools, roads and bridges and put tens of thousands of people to work.

It was a deal Blagojevich's top political ally, Senate President Emil Jones Jr., a Chicago Democrat, had been unable to deliver on his own, despite presiding over a Democratic supermajority that, in theory, had the votes to do whatever it wanted regardless of Watson and the Republicans.

Ultimately, Watson was able to deliver nine Republican votes from among the 22 GOP members and the deal narrowly cleared the Senate, only to now face an uncertain, if not dubious, future in the House.

After the Senate vote, Blagojevich heaped praise on Watson, commending his leadership ability.

It's clear the Democratic powers realized at some point they needed Watson's Republicans and it would be wise to stop criticizing him. Exactly when that realization set in is unclear.

A spokeswoman for the governor downplayed Blagojevich's change of tune regarding the Senate's Republican leader, suggesting it was Watson who saw the political light.

"We can work with anyone who's interested in passing the priorities of the people of Illinois," said spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff.

Patty Schuh, Watson's spokeswoman, said once the political rhetoric was ratcheted down and the governor offered certain guarantees on what would be funded, the deal became much easier.

She said the Republicans have written guarantees from Blagojevich and Jones regarding construction spending and the deal is written so it'd be revisited in two years to make sure the governor is keeping his word.

"The bottom line is, we've put together some pretty tight lockdowns to make sure this happens," Schuh said.

Outside political observers say it's too soon to say whether Watson's move was shrewd or will come back to haunt him. Just four years ago, Watson garnered newfound political relevance by aligning himself with influential Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan in budget fights with Jones and Blagojevich.

Now, he's delivered votes for those two on a deal Madigan appears to oppose.

"We need to see how this plays out before we make any judgments," said Mike Lawrence, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and a former top aide to Gov. Jim Edgar. "I think there are a few more chapters left to unfold."