How could you people elect Rod Blagojevich?
That was the question from an out of state friend reading about Illinois’ latest embarrassment: our seventh governor to go to jail for corruption, and the second in a row.
In hindsight, he seems so obviously the wrong choice: so cocky, such a lightweight. His early career depended almost entirely on Ald. Dick Mell, his Dem machine pol father-in-law; he had a congressional tenure with not a single important legislative achievement; and he holds the distinction of being the only Illinois Democrat who voted in favor of war with Iraq in 2002.
But if Mell was instrumental in his forward movement, I’m going to suggest there was another man almost as important to Blago’s gubernatorial tenure.
His name? Rolando Cruz.
You remember him: the 20 year-old gang member who stupidly thought he could make up a story in order to get the reward offered for info on 10 year-old Jeanine Nicarico’s rape and murder and wound up losing more than a decade of his own life in jail, falsely accused of the crime.
In spite of prosecutorial lies, and even exculpatory DNA evidence, DuPage prosecutors and law enforcement became obsessed with pinning the crime on Cruz and a pair of his friends. But by the time Blago ran for governor in 2002, Cruz had already won a civil suit against his accusers and was on his way to a full pardon from then Governor George Ryan.
In 2002, Blago had won the Democratic primary against former schools czar Paul Vallas and egomaniac Roland Burris (oh the ironies!), and who did he face in the general election? Republican Jim Ryan, the former Illinois attorney general who had prosecuted Cruz.
By the time of the election, Jim Ryan was trying to have it both ways -- committed to what he had done, yet refusing to take a stand on Cruz’s guilt or innocence as the pardon played out.
The Cruz case was no small detail. It dominated headlines, debates. It even prompted the Nicarico family to send a letter to the Tribune asking Jim Ryan to man up and say in public what he continued to tell them in private: that he believed Cruz was involved.
Blago could not have asked for a better candidate to run against.
Jim Ryan looked overzealous, incapable of admitting a mistake, willing to do anything -- even send innocent men to die -- in order to get ahead politically.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, when Blago rolled up the winning votes, many came from Latino and African-American communities where Jim Ryan struck the most fear.
And in 2006?
By then, Blago was already under investigation for corruption by Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan. Edwin Eisendrath ran against him in the primary but he had no chance: Blagojevich was backed by the entire Dem establishment (except Madigan), including then Senator Barack Obama -- in spite of the fact that by then the governor was feuding with practically every single Democrat in Illinois. (An aside: everybody in the president’s inner circle, with the single exception of David Axelrod, who never supported Blago, backed Blagojevich both times.)
But in 2006, it looked like Blago would get a real challenger: Judy Baar Topinka, a RINO if there ever was one. She was personally popular, had a bunch of progressive positions, and though she had done some ethically questionable things, she wasn’t under investigation and seemed far cleaner than Blago by this point.
But then she named DuPage County state’s attorney Joe Birkett, a Jim Ryan lieutenant and another of the Cruz innocence deniers, to her ticket and that eliminated Baar Topinka for a whole lot of people.
How disgusted were voters in 2006 with both Blago and the GOP ticket?
Rich Whitney, the Green Party candidate, got an impressive 10+ percent of the votes -- a position that allowed the Greens to become one of three legally established parties in the state.
So how could we elect a doofus like Rod Blagojevich?
We were, believe it or not, voting for the lesser evil -- both times.