Illinois GOP assesses election strategy in wake of President Trump’s decision on Blagojevich
CHICAGO — Looking ahead to the November general election, leading Illinois Republicans thought they had a marketable message to voters by pointing to myriad federal investigations that have ensnared Democrats at various levels.
But Republican President Donald Trump’s decision Tuesday to commute former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s prison sentence on federal corruption charges may have short-circuited the GOP’s strategy.
Voters in a state with a rich history of corruption can rightfully ask Republicans how dedicated they are toward cleaning up government in Illinois when their president — who vowed to “clean the swamp” of government — freed a former governor who attempted to shake down a children’s hospital for campaign funds and tried to sell President Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.
“It’s discouraging for people in the state of Illinois to see this happen and that a disgraced former governor who is corrupt to the core is walking out of the federal prison based on a gift from the president,” said Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs.
“There are, I think, more deserving inmates in the (federal) Bureau of Prisons who are serving lengthy sentences for crimes that were I think not as harmful as what Gov. Blagojevich did who are never going to receive one bit of consideration from this president,” said Durkin, a former prosecutor who played a lead role in Blagojevich’s impeachment.
Republicans knew they had their work cut out for them after what the party’s state chairman, Tim Schneider, acknowledged was a “rough year” in 2018. The GOP lost the governorship and all other statewide offices, saw Democrats expand their stranglehold in the General Assembly and pick up two traditionally GOP U.S. House seats.
With Illinois a solidly blue state in presidential elections due to Democratic turnout in Chicago and demographic changes that have eroded the longtime GOP leanings of the suburban collar counties, there was little for Trump to gain politically in freeing Blagojevich — something the state’s underdog Republicans realized.
“Blagojevich is the face of public corruption in Illinois, and not once has he shown any remorse for his clear and documented record of egregious crimes that undermined the trust placed in him by voters,” said a statement released by the five Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation who had previously urged Trump not to pardon Blagojevich or commute his sentence.
“As our state continues to grapple with political corruption, we shouldn’t let those who breached the public trust off the hook. History will not judge Rod Blagojevich well,” said the statement signed by U.S. Reps. Darin LaHood of Peoria, John Shimkus of Collinsville, Rodney Davis of Taylorville, Mike Bost of Murphysboro and Adam Kinzinger of Channahon.
After the dismal 2018 election, Republicans had hoped to capitalize on the federal corruption investigations that have ensnared some of the state’s most powerful Democrats.
Ald. Edward Burke, Chicago’s longest serving alderman, last year pleaded not guilty to sweeping corruption charges alleging he abused his office to extort work for his law firm and other favors from companies and individuals doing business with the city.
The charges against Burke came after Ald. Daniel Solis became the center of a spiraling FBI probe at City Hall. Solis resigned after secretly wearing a wire and cooperating with federal investigators amid a probe into his alleged wrongdoing over a two-year period.
In Springfield, state Sen. Martin Sandoval of Chicago, head of the chamber’s powerful Transportation Committee, resigned and pleaded guilty to a bribery charge, and agreed to cooperate with federal investigators in a burgeoning, widespread probe of public corruption involving construction, transportation and power company officials, lobbyists, gambling interests, a red-light camera company and at least three suburban mayors.
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, has pleaded not guilty to federal charges over an allegedly no-show union job.
Former state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, has pleaded not guilty to a federal charge over allegedly attempting to bribe a state senator to support gambling-related legislation. Arroyo resigned his House seat after his indictment. State Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, has been identified by a Tribune source as a cooperating witness against Arroyo, but he denies that.
Federal investigators also have sought documents involving the Republicans’ chief political target, House Speaker Michael Madigan, as part of an investigation into the lobbying practices of ComEd and its parent company, Exelon. Federal authorities have raided the Downstate home of powerful former lobbyist Mike McClain, a top Springfield insider and one of Madigan’s closest friends.
It all has made for a potent tableau for Republicans to paint their anti-corruption strategy to attract voters — until Trump’s decision to let Blagojevich out of prison.
“I think it doesn’t help the argument,” said Illinois Senate Republican leader Bill Brady of Bloomington.
“We here in Illinois had to live through the tragedy of what Rod Blagojevich did, and (we) better understand the hurt and the damage he did to our reputation,” he said. “That is why uniformly you saw us say that if the judicial system thought that 14 years was the right amount (of prison time), then that’s the right amount.”
Brady said he believed most voters would consider Trump’s commutation of Blagojevich’s prison time as a matter of compassion rather than a reflection of the president’s views of the crimes the former governor committed.
But Trump has defended Blagojevich’s actions, saying last August that Blagojevich was behind bars “over a phone call where nothing happens.” He added Blagojevich “shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio.”
And on Wednesday, Trump issued a tweet that included a major falsehood: “Rod Blagojevich did not sell the Senate seat. He served 8 years in prison, with many remaining. He paid a big price.”
There is a lot riding on the GOP message in Illinois. In addition to looking to elect more Republicans in November, the party is looking to use the corruption angle to fight Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature agenda item — voter approval of a change in the state’s constitution to impose a graduated-rate income tax to replace the currently mandated flat-rate income tax.
Their argument is that in the midst of federal investigations, Democrats cannot be trusted with a move that would give the state an additional $3.6 billion in annual revenue.
Pritzker is cognizant to the threat the corruption argument by Republicans brings to voter consideration of the proposed amendment and has been using an anti-corruption theme of his own.
On Thursday, he noted that more than a decade after Blagojevich’s impeachment, “We still have politicians in this state who are on the take. We’ve got to get rid of them. We’ve got to make sure we find them out. We’ve got to make sure they get prosecuted.”
Democrats, for the most part, want nothing to do with a Blagojevich return to Illinois. Many, including Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, supported Blagojevich’s continued incarceration scheduled through March 2024.
But Pritzker has a Trump connection that won’t go away — secret government wiretaps that were part of the federal investigation of Blagojevich that were obtained by the Tribune in the months leading up to Pritzker’s November 2018 victory.
In a Nov. 14, 2008, conversation between the two discussing an Obama Senate replacement, Pritzker called Secretary of State Jesse White the “least offensive” among candidates for the job. Speaking about other options, Pritzker referred to then-state Senate President Emil Jones as “crass” and then-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. as a “nightmare.”
Following the release of the conversation by the Tribune in February 2018, Pritzker, then a candidate for governor, issued an apology to the African American community and said, “On that call, I was not my best self. I can be better. I have been better and I can do better and I have.”
On Thursday, Pritzker was again compelled to address the issue.
“There were hundreds of people who were recorded, to be clear. And let’s also make sure we all understand that what happened more than 10 years ago has nothing to do with where we are today in this state,” he said.
Upon his release, Blagojevich dubbed himself a “Trumpocrat” — but Brady, the Senate Republican leader, says his party wants nothing to do with him either.
He maintained ongoing news stemming from the federal investigations may overtake any need to address Trump’s commutation of Blagojevich’s sentence.
“I think that the prevailing issues involving illegal activities will persist as these Democrats continue to go through the court system,” Brady said.
Durkin said he thinks voters will continue to ask questions about Trump and Blagojevich, especially as the ever-loquacious Blagojevich seeks public forums to voice his criticism of federal prosecutors while still proclaiming his innocence.
“When the Republican president of the United States says, ‘You know what? You don’t have to pay your debt to society on a case that deals with public corruption,’ people in Illinois are obviously going to be confused,” Durkin said.
“I also think they’re going to take the position that, ‘Why didn’t you take this more seriously, Mr. President?’” he said. “Public corruption is something that has cast a long shadow upon state government, and to me, considering the environment that we’re in, it minimizes what should be a strong statement coming out of the administration about where it stands on issues of corrupt officials.”