SPRINGFIELD — Sweeping aside six years of scandal and crippling political infighting with a historic impeachment vote, the state Senate on Thursday ousted one governor for abusing his power and anointed another who built his political career around having no power at all.
Senators voted 59-0 to remove Rod Blagojevich, who walked out of the silent chamber after delivering an impassioned plea for mercy. Within hours, they applauded his former running mate and lieutenant governor, Patrick Quinn, who was sworn in as the state's 41st governor vowing a new course for Illinois.
"The ordeal is over," said Quinn, long viewed as an unwelcome outsider by the state's political establishment. "In this moment, our hearts are hurt. And it's very important to know that we have a duty, a mission to restore the faith of the people of Illinois in the integrity of their government."
He replaced a defiant Blagojevich, 52, the first Democratic governor in a quarter century and the first governor in Illinois history to be impeached. After racing back to his Chicago house before the vote could deprive him of a ride home on the state plane, Blagojevich once again said he was the victim of a rush to judgment.
"I'm going to keep fighting to clear my name," he told a phalanx of reporters outside his house. "I'm disappointed in the state Senate's actions. ... I guess I'll just have to wait until I have my day in court."
The transition of Quinn into the state's highest office was instantaneously reflected in a variety of ways. A picture of Blagojevich was replaced with one of the new governor in a sign board greeting visitors to the Capitol. Locks and key codes were changed on the doors granting entry into the Statehouse suite of the governor's offices.
The Senate's unanimous, back-to-back votes to convict Blagojevich on a sweeping article of impeachment and disqualify him from future public office in Illinois represented a swift repudiation following his Dec. 9 arrest at his Northwest Side home on federal corruption charges that included plotting to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. Blagojevich immediately denied the charges.
But the allegations were enough for lawmakers, who had long pondered impeaching a governor they assailed as arrogant and untrustworthy. All the while, federal agents were investigating his administration for acts of wrongdoing involving hiring, contracting, board appointments and fundraising.
"There's nothing happy about this. We're doing something that's going to be history forever," Sen. Terry Link (D- Waukegan) said before voting. "But I'm glad we're going to be opening another chapter in a few hours."
The beneficiary of the first impeachment and conviction of an Illinois governor in a state with a nefarious political history, Quinn quickly moved to sign the oath of governor and take part in a ceremonial swearing-in at the Illinois House.
Quinn, who watched lawmakers' battles with Blagojevich drag the state into stalemate, immediately praised the General Assembly for removing his predecessor and vowed ethics reforms to restore Illinois' credibility.
He said he would work with the four remaining statewide officials to address festering problems, including a budget deficit that could approach $5 billion. To get some breathing room, he said he would move his budget address from Feb. 18 to March 18.
Quinn, 60, also said he wants to pass a statewide construction program that has been stalled for the six years of Blagojevich's tenure and take advantage of a new federal stimulus plan championed by Obama.
But he refused to say if he would adhere to Blagojevich's pledge to oppose sales- and income-tax increases. Quinn said he had to "assess the damage left by my predecessor" because "nobody knows" how bad the state's finances really are.
Quinn also said he would reopen the state's closed parks and historic sites as well as review Blagojevich's decisions to close a state prison.
Noting he would take down costly specially made signs with Blagojevich's name from I-PASS collection lanes on Illinois tollways, Quinn said he would not replace them with his own.
"I am not for this imperial governorship routine," Quinn said.
Quinn arrived in Springfield on a separate state plane and minutes apart from Blagojevich, who announced Wednesday he would appear after initially putting up no defense in the first three days of his trial.
Proclaiming his innocence during a 47-minute closing argument, Blagojevich declared he "never, ever intended to violate the law" and added that he was "sorry we're all in this."
But he criticized the process to remove him over unproven criminal allegations when he wasn't allowed to build a defense by questioning potential witnesses in a federal case that relies heavily on recorded conversations he can't obtain.
"There is no evidence before your body here that shows—no evidence, zero—that there was any wrongdoing by me as governor," he said, adding that "always the means were legal and, in most cases, the ends were moral."
He also said the other part of the impeachment article was based in part on political and policy decisions he made before voters re-elected him to a second term in 2006.
"My question to you is: How can you throw a governor out of office who is acting to protect the lives of senior citizens and infants and trying to find ways to be able to help families?" Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich's last-ditch appearance before senators was not under oath, and questions were not permitted—two issues raised by House prosecutor David Ellis. Ellis credited Blagojevich with giving a good speech but noted he spoke "more about the evidence with Barbara Walters on 'The View' than he did in this chamber."
"When the camera's on, the governor's for the little guy, the little people. When the camera's off, what are his priorities?" Ellis asked. It was a reference to Blagojevich's words in covert recordings by federal agents in which he listed his priorities as "legal, personal, political."
Before senators explained the rationale for their votes, Sen. Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago) unsuccessfully sought to split up the lone article of impeachment from the House so that separate votes could be taken on the issues regarding Blagojevich's efforts on health care for the poor.
The move reflected concerns raised by members of the African-American community that lawmakers, in working to remove Blagojevich, would jeopardize further health-care efforts, Hendon said. He said about 15 Democrats did not want to vote to convict the governor on the health-care counts.
But when the time came to talk, not a single senator rose in Blagojevich's defense. Instead, dozens of them lambasted him with more than two hours of invective. They decried his willingness to attack the Senate trial on national television while refusing them the opportunity to question him as a witness.
"He reminded us today in real detail that he is an unusually good liar," said Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine), who helped draft the Senate trial rules.
Though efforts were made during the trial to display the removal effort as bipartisan, freshman Sen. Dan Duffy (R-Lake Barrington) criticized majority Democrats as enablers for Blagojevich.
Senate President John Cullerton (D- Chicago) said being forced to remove a disgraced governor was "a shameful low" for Illinois, but he denied that the acts amounted to any form of political retribution.
Still, it was clear that many among Blagojevich's jury brought a sense of their own history with him into the Senate chamber.
Sen. James Meeks, who had been burned previously by Blagojevich's unkept vows to reform education funding for poor schools, cited the FBI transcript in which the former governor allegedly described the value of his ability to appoint a successor to Obama in the Senate.
"We have this thing called impeachment, and it's 'bleeping golden,' and we've used it the right way," Meeks said.
When asked for his vote to ban Blagojevich from ever again seeking public office in Illinois, Meeks replied simply: "Absolutely."
Tribune reporter Ashley Rueff contributed to this report.