Friday, December 12, 2008

On Blagojevich, and all about the dollars

"I think in Illinois as is true in American politics generally, there are two view of politics. ... [one] that goes in for public service and sacrifice, and another that says, 'you're wheeling and dealing and what's in it for me. If, in fact, the various allegations end up proving to be true, this is ... the far end of the spectrum of that business mentality of politics." -President-Elect Barack Obama, speaking on the Governor Rod Blagojevich scandal, December 11, 2008

"It's all about the dollars, always about the dollars." -Joe Pesci, Casino, 1995.

As of this moment Rod Blagojevich is still the Governor of Illinois, despite his recent arrest for (among other things) attempting to sell Illinois' open Senate seat for cash or influence. I don't intend to write much about the outcome of this whole thing (whenever that will be) if I can avoid it.

So I'll give you an exclusive on Blago right now.

The year was 2002. Rod Blagojevich, Congressman and son-in-law of Chicago's post powerful Alderman, ran for Governor in the Democrat primary against Chicago Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas. With the backing of the Daley machine, Rod got the nod, and in November he broke the GOP's 26-year hold on the Governor's office in Illinois.

I was volunteering for Lisa Madigan's campaign for Attorney General. We won, just barely. A year later, I went to work for the IT Department at the AG's office. The 2002 campaign got me hooked on Democratic activism in a big way. By 2005, I was volunteering for Lisa Madigan and for Alderman Tom Tunney in Chicago's 44th Ward. At the same time, I was a director for both Drinking Liberally and the Illinois Democratic Network.

I met a lot of people. I had friends working on campaigns at the city, county, state, congressional, and Presidential levels. I was also a member of a labor union, The Illinois Federation of Teachers, and I knew a lot of people in the other big public employees' union, SEIU. And from all those people I met, I learned a lot of things about some other people. Specifically, candidates and elected officials.

You know something all those campaigns my friends and I work on have in common? They all love to have people come in and volunteer to help them win elections. You can be a complete stranger, but if you're willing to make a few phone calls and stuff some envelopes, you can hang around all day, and get a chance to see and hear everything that's going on.

But in all the years I spent attending Democratic political events, not once did I have someone shake my hand and say, "I'm volunteering for Rod Blagojevich." I had some friends working for Lt. Governor Pat Quinn, who is a terrific leader, but not one for Rod. I did however have a friend tell me that she tried to volunteer at a Blagojevich office and they sent her away.

This is what I'm saying, friends. Rod Blagojevich had the only campaign I ever saw that refused to let people in the door for fear that someone would find out what they were up to.

Blago had his own army of people of course: city workers who owe their positions to Mayor Daley. (I'm not trashing Daley, I happen to think he's a great mayor.)

There was no reason at the time to think that Blagojevich was up to anything too sinister, as it's an old Chicago tradition that political organizations tend to prefer volunteerism from people they already know (and can tightly control). An entire book was written about this phenomenon in 1979, We Don't Want Nobody Nobody Sent: An Oral History of the Daley Years, by Milton R. Rakove. The idea described by the book's title is that if you're a Chicago politician up to no good, you don't want anyone hanging around who wasn't "sent" by someone you already control. That way, noboby rats you out.

Rod ratted himself out. I guess he never learned that trick the Mafia uses of only making important phone calls from pay phones. So long, buddy. By the way, I'm not sure they allow that poofy hair cut you like at the Terre Haute Federal Pen. But of course former Illinois Governor George Ryan can fill you in on that when you get there.

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