A penchant for the flamboyant

Posted: Feb 20, 2005 12:00 AM

CHICAGO -- It was a marriage made in heaven, as this politics-saturated city probably understands heaven. Rod Blagojevich, the future governor, met his future wife at a fund-raiser for her father, the alderman from the 33rd Ward for 30 years now. Herewith a story about the perils of politics in what is -- the state's license plates say so -- the Land of Lincoln.

     Illinois' northern border is north of Cape Cod and the southern tip is south of Richmond, Va., but the state's beating heart is Chicago. Here the alderman and his son-in-law recently had a falling-out that began at a family Christmas gathering where talk turned, naturally enough, to a Joliet landfill that was violating laws. The landfill's operator was a relative of the alderman's family -- a second cousin of the governor's wife.

     This was a test for Blagojevich, 48, a former congressman. Because he hails from this city, and because his opponents warned that he would be a pawn of the alderman who launched him into politics, and because he replaced a Republican who has been -- like four previous Illinois governors -- indicted, Blagojevich wants to be seen as reformer from the city where, years ago, a politician cheerfully and accurately declared, ``Chicago ain't ready for reform yet.''

     Blagojevich closed the landfill. The alderman said he felt like a first wife discarded for a trophy wife. He also accused the governor of trading appointments to state boards and commissions for campaign contributions, then retracted the statement. The governor said, ``I'm glad my father-in-law finally told the truth.''

     The truth, says a Blagojevich aide, is: ``The people who are qualified to serve in these appointments are by definition people who are active in government and active in their communities. So it should be no surprise that they are active politically.'' So there.

     Sleek is the mot juste to describe Blagojevich -- elegant dark suit, glistening white shirt, subdued tie and a shock of jet-black hair that Elvis would have envied. He has mended his ways since being criticized for sending six Illinois state police cars and 10 bodyguards for his fund-raising trip to Beverly Hills, where at one point they blocked intersections to speed his passage.

     He has a penchant for policy flamboyance, too. He has excoriated the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry over their refusal to support his plan to import prescription drugs. He proposes getting junk food out of Illinois schools and banning the sale of ``violent or sexually explicit'' video games. This lawyers' delight would require litigating, yet again, the meaning of the phrases such as ``appeal to the prurient interest'' and ``sexually explicit.''

     He voted for Reagan twice -- this son of a Serbian immigrant steelworker was the archetypal Reagan Democrat -- and still picks his own political paths: He is at daggers drawn with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who wants casino gambling that the governor opposes. ``It's just too easy, all this found money,'' Blagojevich says. When Daley asked him, ``Don't you want the money?'' Blagojevich replied, ``Frankly, no.''

     He actually is a reformer of sorts. ``I'm a Democrat from Chicago,'' he says with bumptious disregard for the mayor's feelings, ``so I can talk about waste in government.'' He has reduced the state government's work force from 69,000 to 59,000. Before his administration, state employees paid no share of their pensions. Now, in exchange for a pay raise negotiated with AFSCME, the public employees union, employees must contribute 4 percent of their pay.

     Blagojevich lives in Chicago, not in the governor's mansion in Springfield, and is thought to be interested in moving on, to the president's mansion, as the White House was originally called. There is, however, a new problem. The 2004 elections produced an Illinois superstar with national possibilities, Sen. Barack Obama.

     For nine decades of the last century, Illinois was the nation's political barometer, voting with the winner in all but two presidential elections, 1916 and 1976, both years when the country would have done itself a favor by emulating Illinois. But in the two elections in the 1990s Bill Clinton carried it by 15 and then 17 points. Since then Republicans have not competed here: Bush lost it by 12 points in 2000 and 10 in 2004, when the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate was a gasbag from Maryland, Alan Keyes.

     Blagojevich already has $10.4 million for a 2006 re-election campaign, and although serious Republicans are looking to run, he probably can count on the 33rd Ward. Probably.