Claiming victory in the 2002 governor's race, a beaming Rod Blagojevich stood in the gritty steel mill where his late father once worked and pledged a new era in corruption-plagued Illinois politics.
The fresh political face with boyish charm and TV-anchor hair became the state's first Democratic governor in 26 years, riding his father-in-law's connections, Republican scandal and a record-setting war chest into power.
Near North Side mill where he had announced his candidacy a year earlier. "It is time for a government that's as good and as honest and as hardworking as the people of this great state."
Little more than six years later, Blagojevich stood before senators, pleading for his political life and asking them to overlook the very same anger and disappointment. His effort failed as the Senate voted unanimously to remove him from office, ending the electoral career of a fork-tongued governor who promised lofty reforms but sunk Illinois to new lows.
A confrontational leadership style, a penchant for pushing populist programs without the money to pay for them and serious questions about his ethics all weakened Blagojevich's standing.
The ultimately fatal blow to his tenure came early on Dec. 9 when Blagojevich was arrested on federal corruption charges following a massive investigation in which authorities say he was caught on federal wiretaps scheming to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama, among other crimes.
Even before his arrest, Blagojevich was trying to govern as scandal swirled.
Questions arose about Blagojevich's practice of appointing political contributors to state boards or giving them state jobs. Federal investigators also examined real estate commissions his wife, Patricia, received from people doing state business and a curious $1,500 check from a childhood friend whose wife got a state job. Blagojevich explained away the money as a birthday or baptism gift.
"I'm afraid at some point the governor lost his moral compass," said state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D- Chicago), a longtime friend who served with him in the Illinois House. "Too many politicians fall to money, power and fame, and that's where the governor fell off track."
After a dramatic plea to senators Thursday, Blagojevich returned to his Ravenswood Manor home and was inside with his family when the vote was taken.
Later, the fallen governor made a brief statement before wading into a crowd to grab a boy who asked if he wanted to play basketball in the summer. He repeatedly encouraged the news media to take his picture with the child, who grinned as Blagojevich used him as a political prop in the state's ongoing morality play.
"I love the people of Illinois today now more than I ever did before," he said, his voice choking with emotion. "And the fight goes on. Just because I'm not governor anymore doesn't mean that I'm not going to keep fighting for you and the causes that I've fought for my whole life."
The son of a Serbian immigrant and CTA ticket taker, Blagojevich often talked of how his parents never bought a house so they could send their two sons to college. After earning a law degree, Blagojevich returned to Chicago and searched for a political patron to make him an assistant state's attorney. Trading on his father's Yugoslavian community connections, he first approached former Ald. Edward Vrdolyak (10th). The relationship soon soured when the alderman failed to secure him a prosecutor's post.
Blagojevich eventually worked as a low-level prosecutor but still was seeking the connections needed for a successful private practice and political career when he attended a 1988 fundraiser for Ald. Dick Mell (33rd). He met the powerful ward boss' daughter Patricia. They married in 1990. Mell tapped his son-in-law for a seat in the Illinois House three years later.
After brief, if unspectacular, stints as a state lawmaker and U.S. congressman, Blagojevich won the governor's office amid great fanfare and chatter about an eventual spot on a presidential ticket. His first legislative session as governor went well, as lawmakers approved a minimum-wage increase and a plan to let the state negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs for senior citizens.
Within months, Blagojevich battled with legislators, accusing them of spending like "drunken sailors" and gaining a reputation for reneging on promises. He engaged in legendary budget battles that threatened to shut down state government and created chaos with 11th-hour proposals such as his plan to give seniors free access to public transportation amid a mass-transit funding crisis.
Blagojevich frequently showers himself with praise for the All Kids health-care program, though it hasn't been the success he proclaims. The governor couldn't get enough money for the project, cementing his image as an executive who governed by fiat and news release rather than through negotiation and hard work.
"He never was really willing to be a governor," state Rep. Julie Hamos (D- Evanston) said. "He was kind of a showman who came up with ideas at press conferences and blasted away if it never happened."
The governor's power further eroded last year as numerous insiders testified to his practice of rewarding contributors with state jobs and business at the federal corruption trial of Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a former Blagojevich fundraiser who was convicted in June. Four months later, the FBI began recording private telephone conversations between the governor and close advisers.
The wiretaps followed a sweeping federal probe that examined hundreds of his hires and millions in state contracts. Several federal subpoenas followed Tribune reports about state Medicaid fraud investigators who felt thwarted in their probe of a Blagojevich campaign contributor.
After his arrest, Blagojevich tried to stay relevant by signing a bill providing autistic children with insurance coverage and appointing Roland Burris to the very Senate seat he is accused of selling. He compared himself to Nelson Mandela, quoted Rudyard Kipling and launched a national media blitz that included an on-air grilling by Whoopi Goldberg.
"Honest and competent governors don't act like Rod Blagojevich," state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) said.
Blagojevich sensed the animosity toward him when former Gov. George Ryan returned to Springfield for his official portrait hanging in 2003.Though Ryan was tainted by scandal, he and lawmakers mocked Blagojevich's strained relationship with the General Assembly. Still, Ryan assured his successor that he, too, would be feted in the Statehouse.
"I hope somebody shows," Blagojevich said.
Tribune reporters Jo Napolitano and Robert Mitchum contributed to this report.
A politician's rise, hard fall
Career ends in disgrace
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