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Where in the world is Rod?
Governor faces fire over absences
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff

Rod Blagojevich


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/2/2007 2:17 AM

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SPRINGFIELD -- Imagine your company's top executive ordered everyone to work on a day off to fix a big problem.

But as you worked into the evening, you discovered the CEO skipped out to go watch a hockey game. Upon learning the problem hadn't been fixed, the same executive tells everyone to work more, possibly straight through Christmas.

That's what Gov. Rod Blagojevich did last week.

The almost surreal series of events left many lawmakers and statehouse observers stunned. They say it's merely the latest example of why they don't know quite what to make of the second-term Democratic governor's work ethic and leadership.

First, the governor demanded lawmakers show up for a special session last week to fix mass transit funding problems looming across Chicagoland. Once lawmakers were assembled, he left on a state plane to attend a Chicago Blackhawks game.

When the proposed solution was voted down -- while the governor was at the game -- he ordered lawmakers to stay at the Capitol and work more. And when the governor got back to the Capitol the following day to find still no progress, he warned lawmakers he'd call special sessions in Springfield through the holidays if they didn't accomplish something.

This all occurred even as a Chicago TV station was following him for a story questioning whether the governor takes his job seriously enough, a report the governor's office cast off as "sleazy."

The episode leaves even Blagojevich's harshest critics flabbergasted.

"Every time I think he has done the most outrageously irresponsible thing, he does something else," said state Sen. Dan Cronin, an Elmhurst Republican.

But Blagojevich and his aides offer no apologies, claiming his political rivals conspired to defeat the mass transit bailout and there was nothing more he could have done at the Capitol.

"I prefer to watch a game that wasn't rigged," he told reporters afterward.

He said new Blackhawks president John McDonough had asked if he'd be able to attend the team's first home game with McDonough as president.

"As an act to help him, as a friend, I told him I'd try to make the game," he said.

A team spokesman said given the circumstances, McDonough would have understood had Blagojevich canceled.

"Sure. Absolutely. Understandably, everyone's busy," said Guy Chipparoni, a team spokesman.

A Blagojevich spokeswoman defended the governor's decision to go, saying it was one of many responsibilities that come with the office.

"On one hand, he has a responsibility to try to make sure a bill like that gets out of the House," said spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch. "On the other hand, the governor made a commitment to the president of the Blackhawks to attend that game in his official capacity and he kept that commitment. The governor has a number of responsibilities, a number of functions every day, and he lives up to them."

However, those pushing the transit fix question his priorities.

"To jump ship at such a critical juncture is simply inexcusable. The fact that while we were literally debating this critical issue, he was eating snacks at a hockey game is inexcusable and it is a very concrete example for the public to look at to decide if he's doing the job that he should be doing," said Democratic state Rep. John Fritchey, Blagojevich's local lawmaker and a frequent critic.

Combine all this with the governor's well-documented history of flying into the Capitol for a few hours during session days and then daily flying back to Chicago rather than staying at the Executive Mansion, repeated sightings of him jogging mid-workday, a proclivity for tardiness and his penchant for working at home, and lawmakers are increasingly frustrated and distrustful.

After the hockey game absence, Mundelein Republican state Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr. brought a hockey stick to the House floor, comparing the state of affairs to the movie "Slapshot" and the state's Democratic leaders to the movie's notorious "Hanson brothers."

Others joked it was time for the governor to sit in the penalty box.

"He brings a lot of these problems on himself by what he does, and that's his decision. If he wants to do what he did, I guess that's fine, but I do believe there's a political price you pay for that, and there's also an approval price you pay," said Illinois Senate Republican leader Frank Watson of downstate Greenville.

And that potential price is becoming increasingly evident in the real world outside the Capitol. Thousands of people will be scrambling for transportation if some sort of fix for the bus and train agencies isn't found within weeks.

Millions of added education dollars have been held in limbo because of political gamesmanship and two dozen school districts still wait for construction assistance promised more than five years ago.

One statehouse aide quipped it was too bad the governor didn't bring something of use back from the hockey game.

"What we really need is a political Zamboni," said David Dring, spokesman for House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego, "to clean up this mess that's been the 2007 legislative session."