January 18, 2006


Democratic strategist James Carville, an advisor to Bill Clinton on national issues back in the 1990s, is credited with coining the phrase "it's the economy, stupid," during Clinton's 1992 campaign.

In relation to Illinois' 2006 elections, statewide and in Cook County, and in the 2007 Chicago mayoral election, Carville's phrase would be modified as follows: It's all about the corruption, stupid.

Governor Rod Blagojevich campaigned in 2002 against the "culture of corruption" in Springfield and promised reform, and the scandals surrounding Governor George Ryan enabled Blagojevich to win by 252,080 votes.

But 4 years later, with a "culture of corruption" oozing from every pore of Chicago's government, with City Clerk Jim Laski being the 39th person charged in the federal Hired Truck probe, with Ryan on trial for 18 counts of official corruption, including racketeering, perjury and tax fraud, and with Blagojevich's "reforms" being but a figment of his imagination, the governor is, as they say, in deep doo-doo. Blagojevich ran as an agent of change in 2002, and he wants to focus the 2006 election on his performance in the areas of fiscal management and education. That won't happen.

Expect another dozen Hired Truck indictments before the November election, and in a 2006 political environment colored by corruption, expect voters to oust any ethically challenged incumbent.

As for Blagojevich, one cannot assert that he is corrupt, but one can assert that the culture of favoritism, cronyism and hypocrisy is alive and well in the Blagojevich Administration and throughout state government. The governor takes care of those who donate to him, and the companies that hire Blagojevich-connected lobbyists get prime state contracts.

Blagojevich's vulnerability will be revealed in the March 21 Democratic primary. Challenger Edwin Eisendrath is unknown but self-funded. Blagojevich is well known and well funded, with $14 million in his account. But his hypocrisy on the issue of reform has undermined his credibility. Blagojevich raised and spent $24 million to get elected, and he raised another $11 million through mid-2005. Last June he proposed a $2,000 limit on contributions to individual candidates and a $5,000 limit for state parties and political committees. Yet that same month, he was soliciting $10,000 donations, and he expects to raise and spend $25 million to get re-elected.

In polls throughout 2005, the governor's approval level was under 40 percent.

For Blagojevich, the candidacy of Eisendrath, a former Chicago alderman, has both a downside and an upside. Eisendrath will spend at least $6 million of his family's fortune, and he will repetitiously emphasize his commitment to governmental ethics and campaign reform. He will blast Blagojevich for the numerous "appearances of impropriety" in his administration. He will make Blagojevich spend $10 million to beat him. But Eisendrath is not a crime-busting prosecutor, and he has no reputation as an ethics' crusader; also, being from Chicago won't enhance his Downstate appeal.

Eisendrath won't win, but he is a mechanism for an anti-Blagojevich "protest" vote, and there are plenty of disgruntled Democrats who would like the send "The Kid" a message. If Eisendrath approaches 40 percent of the vote in the primary, Blagojevich will limp into the November election with his credibility damaged and his treasury depleted, and he would be an underdog against the Republican candidate.

The governor's recent proposal to permit keno games in restaurants and taverns typifies his "pay to play" mentality. Keno would generate $80 million in state tax revenue, and the system would be operated by a company called GTECH, whose lobbyist is John Wyma, who was chief of staff when Blagojevich was a congressman and who ran Blagojevich's 2002 campaign for governor. Wyma also is the lobbyist for a company called IGOR the Watchdog Group, which is an Illinois subcontractor for GTECH and which made a large contribution to Blagojevich.

It will be recalled that Alderman Dick Mell, the governor's father-in-law, accused Blagojevich of "trading" appointments to state commissions for $50,000 donations - a charge which he later recanted. The U.S. attorney has subpoenaed records regarding hiring practices in three state departments, as well as records regarding tollway lease reductions for restaurants owned by top Blagojevich fund raiser Tony Rezko.

Blagojevich got $505,549 in donations from firms that were awarded investments of state pension funds and $925,000 from 20 companies that got $365 million in state contracts. A 28-count federal indictment alleged a $9.5 million kickback scheme at the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board; earlier, two $25,000 Blagojevich donors were appointed to the board.

A 1970s song by the Who titled "Won't Get Fooled Again" contained the verse, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Illinois' new governor has a lot more hair than the old governor, and he undoubtedly has more personal integrity, but 3 years into the Blagojevich Administration, it's still the "Same Old Stuff" in Springfield.

A politician can survive in a hostile environment if he has built a loyal and cohesive base of support. The 2002 election environment was tainted by the scandals of Ryan. Republicans had controlled the governorship for 26 years, and Blagojevich promised change. That was the message many independent voters, and some Republicans, wanted to hear. But Blagojevich's vote was anchored by a coalition of organized labor, minorities, liberals, abortion supporters, gays, trial lawyers, Downstate county Democratic chairmen seeking state patronage and white Democratic Chicago ward committeemen who took Mell's word that "The Kid" would do well as governor. Even with that firepower, Blagojevich managed to win by only 252,080 votes.

Blagojevich, the calculating opportunist, has since rent that coalition asunder. He alienated the trial lawyers by refusing to veto a tort reform bill with noneconomic caps. He alienated teachers and state government workers with his pension raid; thus far, only the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union have endorsed the governor. He alienated Mell and his Chicago colleagues; they worked hard for him in 2002, but they will ignore him in 2006. He alienated Downstate chairmen, who are livid about the dearth of state jobs. Mayor Rich Daley's political operation is in a shambles, and he is in no position to aid the governor. Blagojevich's feminist base is in jeopardy, because if the Republicans nominate Judy Baar Topinka, a lot of liberal women will vote to make her Illinois' first female governor. And even liberals and independents, if they begin to tire of the "Same Old Stuff" in Springfield, may abandon him.

The governor has spent his first term making enemies in order to make headlines, much as did the state's last Democratic governor, Dan Walker. In 1972 Walker ran as the candidate of change and beat Paul Simon in the primary by 735,193-694,900, a margin of 40,293 votes. He then spent 4 years warring with every vested interest, expecting that voters would perceive him as an independent-minded reformer and triumphantly re-elect him in 1976. But Watergate and rampant corruption in Chicago changed the environment. Mayor Richard J. Daley's administration was rocked by scandal, but Daley enticed Secretary of State Mike Howlett to run against Walker in the primary, and Howlett won 811,721-696,380, a margin of 115,341 votes. Walker carried Downstate and the Collar Counties by 113,434 votes, but he lost Chicago by 202,292 votes and the suburbs by 26,483. In the ensuing election, with Democrats divided, Republican Jim Thompson, the former U.S. attorney, pulverized Howlett by a margin of 1,390,137 votes.

Thirty years later, it's almost deja vu all over. Venality, greed and avarice are equally epidemic. The Democrats control the governor's office and the General Assembly, as they did in 1975-76, but they squabble incessantly. However, Eisendrath is no Howlett, the current Mayor Daley is not behind Eisendrath, and no Republican approaches the stature of the crime-busting Thompson.

Blagojevich won the 2002 primary by just 25,469 votes, getting 36.5 percent of the vote. Based on promises made by Mell, virtually all of the Downstate county chairmen backed Blagojevich, who got 135,105 votes (57.3 percent of the total) in the 96 Downstate counties, topping Paul Vallas by 81,720 votes. Elsewhere, Blagojevich's vote was anemic: He got 28.5 percent of the vote in Chicago, 24.8 percent in the Cook County suburbs and 32.8 percent in the Collar Counties. In the predominantly black wards and townships, due to the candidacy of Roland Burris, Blagojevich got less than 15 percent of the vote.

The early outlook: Blagojevich is the incumbent, there is no black candidate running, and Eisendrath has no special appeal to minorities. But Eisendrath can match the governor dollar-for-dollar in television ads, and he can make the primary all about "reform." Blagojevich does not have a ground game of precinct workers in place, and he cannot count on ward committeemen or Downstate chairmen for help.

And therein lies his problem: Blagojevich must raise cash to flood the airwaves. He must divert the focus of the race away from corruption, and he will have to personally attack Eisendrath. And the more money he raises, the more "appearances of impropriety" will surface.

It's way too early to predict that Blagojevich is going down in 2006, but his prospects do seem to be dropping like a rock.