Will Voters Care About Blagojevich Trial? | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Will Voters Care About Blagojevich Trial?

The corruption trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich begins next week. The Chicago Democrat insists he's innocent. Still, the drama is expected to last at least four months, keeping the allegations fresh in the minds of voters. It's an easy talking point for the state's Republicans. They've been lingering in obscurity the last few years thanks to election losses they blame, in part, on corruption linked to former GOP Governor George Ryan. We took a look at the Ryan effect, and whether, this year,  Democrats should be worried.

2006 already wasn't looking like a great election year for Republicans when the George Ryan verdict came down in April.

WBEZ AUDIO: The jury's sweeping verdict in Ryan's federal corruption case...guilty on all charges... in his racketeering and corruption trial.

Judy Baar Topinka, who was state treasurer and Republican candidate for governor, wasn't tied to those legal troubles, but was attacked for her ties to Ryan. First by her opponents in the primary and then by the incumbent, Rod Blagojevich.

BLAGOJEVICH AD (Blagojevich): For four years under Governor Ryan, she didn't raise her voice or lift a finger.

Blagojevich had also made use of the Ryan investigations during his first run for governor, in 2002. And even though Blagojevich's friend and fundraiser, Tony Rezko, was indicted just weeks before the 2006 election, the Democrat used his campaign's millions to deliver a guilty-by-association message about Topinka.

BLAGOJEVICH AD (narrator): George Ryan's treasurer... BLAGOJEVICH AD (Topinka): You're a damn decent guy, governor, and I love you dearly.
BLAGOJEVICH AD (narrator): Judy Baar Topinka. What's she thinking?

Blagojevich beat Topinka by nine points, and his party gained five seats in the state Senate and one in the House. This was not due only to Ryan's conviction. An unpopular President Bush made 2006 a bad year for Republicans across the country. But Ryan didn't help. Bernie Schoenburg writes about politics for the State Journal-Register in Springfield.

SCHOENBURG: Identifying him with the whole Republican Party, and especially because nothing like this had happened in a while - that a governor had gotten into such terrible trouble - it seemed like a legitimate thing for Democrats to use.

George Ryan, Schoenburg says, was a "strong Republican from way back." He expects Republicans to try this year to tie Democratic candidates to Blagojevich, though he says it may not be as effective. That's because, after Blagojevich became governor...

SCHOENBURG: It was very clear he was not a party guy. He pretty much cared just about himself, and alienated so many Democrats that it might be easier for Democrats to say, 'We didn't like him either. We threw him out of office. He's not our guy.'

Democratic leaders do have a history of disagreement with Blagojevich, an inoculation they're counting on to avoid the same "corrupt" label they used previously on Republicans.

Governor Pat Quinn - who, as a candidate for lieutenant governor was paired on the ticket twice with Blagojevich - is up against Republican state Senator Bill Brady and the Green Party's Rich Whitney in November. Quinn proudly points out the awkward relationship he had with Blagojevich, and touts what he calls "reforms" in government over the past year.

Still, Democratic State Representative Jack Franks doesn't think Quinn's gone far enough.

FRANKS: He hasn't done a thorough house cleaning as we'd all asked him to do, to purge himself of the people who created this mess. He's kept them on. And it's sort of hard for him to say he's not part of it, when the Rezko appointees are still there.

A spokesman for the governor had no comment on the remark from Franks, who is a regular critic of Quinn, and Blagojevich before him.

FRANKS: I'm sure Bill Brady is going to seize on the fact that it was a Blagojevich-Quinn Administration.

Sure enough, when I talked with Brady recently about politics and the state budget, he paired the Democrats together six times in 14 minutes.

As Judy Baar Topinka knows so well, when something is said often enough, it might just stick. Topinka's now attempting a well-timed political comeback, running for state comptroller while her former opponent tries to stay out of prison. But she and the rest of the GOP ticket need more than the Blagojevich trial to win over voters like River Forest resident Liz Simon.

SIMON: I'm very offended by the guy and what he's done, but I also think the candidates we need to go forward have to be judged on their merits.

Simon, a law professor, does expects the trial to affect other voters.

SIMON: Oh, yeah. I think they'll be a backlash against Democrats. No question about it, and I think it's up the Democratic leadership to anticipate what to do about that.

To avoid that backlash, Simon thinks Democrats need to start fixing big problems, like the budget. Let the courts worry about the past, she says. Let us focus on the future.

Music Button:  N. Tassone, "Cugie's Touch", from the album Kitch-o-rama (Label Unknown, from the director's secret stash!)

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