Northwest Indiana Serbs Awaiting Blagojevich Verdict | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Northwest Indiana Serbs Awaiting Blagojevich Verdict

The jury is still out in the high-profile trial of Rod Blagojevich. But it's not just those in the Prairie State who are keeping tabs on the former Illinois governor's political corruption trial. We find out why some people in Northwest Indiana are following the trial with particular interest.

Milan Andrejevich first noticed Rod Blagojevich because of their common heritage.

ANDREJEVICH: He was something of a little bit of a magnet I think for the Serbian American community.

That includes Andrejevich, who lives in Valparaiso, Ind., where he teaches history and communications at Valparaiso University.

But his interest in the colorful ex-governor goes way back before Blagojevich's arrest and trial.

In the mid-90s, Andrejevich worked for Radio Free Europe in Germany. He remembers hearing news reports of an up and coming American politician of Serbian descent.

At the time, the Kosovo war was going on. TV coverage at the time, Andrejevich says, often showed Serbian politicians in shouting matches.

Andrejevich says Blagojevich gave Americans a more relaxed view of Serbians.

ANDRJEVICH: The fact that here's a Serbian American who is getting this media and not making these bold statements. Blagojevich gave it a fresh face.

Andrejevich says Blagojevich began to get attention in Northwest Indiana with its sizeable Serbian-American population.

But it wasn't just a shared heritage, he says.

In the late 90s, many Northwest Indiana hoosiers credited then-Congressman Blagojevich with standing up for them against the proposed transport of thousands of barrels of the Vietnam-era chemical weapon, napalm, through the Chicago area and into Indiana.

A company in East Chicago, Ind. wanted to incinerate the chemical there. Blagojevich's stance bolstered public opposition to the plan even though other local politicians, including a congressman, supported it.

In another public stand, then Congressman Blagojevich also traveled to Yugoslavia with the Rev.Jesse Jackson to help secure the release of three American servicemen held captive.

Andrejevich recalls the news coverage from that event.

ANDRJEVICH: There was a lot of press in Belgrade, in Serbia. Nothing negative there.

As Blagojevich's reputation grew so did his ability to raise campaign cash in Indiana with ethnic Serbs and others.

ANDRJEVICH: I was aware of several fundraisers he had in Northwest Indiana. He projected a positive image at that time.

GLUMAC: Politics is a strange thing in Chicago.

Simeon Glumac is another who remembers Blagojevich's early days as an up-and-coming Chicago politician who made stops in Northwest Indiana.

GLUMAC: I know one time he had something right here in Schererville.

Glumac remembers those days well. He says Blagojevich hired him to shoot photographs at a few political events during his first run for governor.

A native of Serbia, Glumac says Blagojevich made him proud in those years and it's still hard for him to understand how American investigators could record private telephone conversations.

GLUMAC: This thing I carry with me, I think I have the freedom. Somebody call me and they can listen in on my conversation with all these satellites they have today. There is no freedom.

Glumac acknowledges that the Blagojevich image has been tarnished, but …

GLUMAC: He was great guy at the time and still in my way of looking at it, I don't see nothing that he's done wrong.

Last week, Glumac and others were setting up the annual festival at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Merrillville.

PEJNOVIC: We have sarma which is stuffed cabbage rolls. We have chebobs, which are Serbian sausages. Cevapcici and we're having Serbian salads with green beans and chicken.

That's church member Donna Pejnovic, part of the crew preparing food for the festival. Pejnovic says she's less worried about Rod Blagojevich himself than about how others view Serbian-Americans.

PEJNOVIC: I think because of everything that happened from the wars in ‘92. We got a bad name for no reason. I think there's a little concern there. He's one person whether he's Serbian-American or whatever.

She wants to put politics and trial talk aside for now and concentrate on food and good times.

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