CHICAGO—On Dec. 19, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich held a take-no-prisoners (or questions) press conference, vowing that he's "not going to quit a job the people hired me to do because of false accusations and a political lynch mob." Then he spent the rest of the day proving he still has some governing left in him, pardoning 22 criminals. But if Blagojevich really wants to show he's still running the state, he'll do something even more dangerous: He'll appoint a senator.
To make a comparison with his favorite singer, Blagojevich has entered the Elvis Bloat phase of his governorship. At his press conference, he spent three minutes delivering his greatest hit—I'm an honest governor of the people—then left the building. He was followed at the podium by his bombastic young lawyer, Sam Adam Jr., who did take questions from the media.
"What about the Senate seat?" a reporter asked. "Is he still planning to appoint someone to replace President-elect Barack Obama?"
"The honest answer is that I don't know," Adam said. "I am not talking about any of those things with the governor."
"Well, the country is waiting for that," another hack pressed him. "Not just Illinois, but the whole country."
"We understand. But you've also got to understand Rod's side. He's facing not only an arrest, but an impeachment proceeding. Give the governor just a few seconds to breathe. There's nothing that's going to happen in the next two or three days in which the appointment has to be done."
(Blagojevich's other mouthpieces have given conflicting signals on whether he'll appoint a senator. Lawyer Ed Genson: "No. Harry Reid said that they're not going to accept anybody he picks. Why would he do that?" Spokesman Lucio Guerrero: "It is still his responsibility until otherwise the powers are taken from him or not. ... The powers remain with him to appoint a senator.")
Everyone from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to the Chicago Tribune editorial page is warning Blagojevich, "Don't you dare." But unless he appoints a senator, our state will face an intolerable situation. When Congress convenes in January, 49 states will have two votes in the Senate. (I'm assuming New York, Minnesota, and Colorado can get their acts together in the next few weeks.) Illinois will have one.
With a Ford plant in Chicago and a Chrysler plant in Belvidere, the state could have used that vote during the auto-bailout negotiations. If Al Franken wins the recount in Minnesota, a Blagojevich appointee would be the 59th Democratic senator, leaving the party one GOP defector short of breaking opposition filibusters. That could be critical during Obama's first months as president.
Unless Blagojevich acts, Illinois' junior senate seat could remain empty until June. In Springfield, Democrats and Republicans are at loggerheads over how to fill it. Democrats want Blagojevich to go away so Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn can step in and appoint another Democrat. But with the governor promising to fight "until my last breath," it looks as though only impeachment will drive him from office. And some legislators think that could take until spring.
Republicans want a special election. They've won one Senate contest in the last 30 years, and they're slavering at the chance to run against "Blagojevich Democrats" while the governor is facing criminal charges. But the earliest Illinois can hold a Senate primary is April 7, the day of local elections. A new senator would probably be chosen June 2.
"Nobody's comfortable with this governor putting a senator in that seat for one day," said Republican State Sen. Matt Murphy. But, he conceded, "Realistically, I don't think we're going to have anybody but the governor appoint a senator in the short term."
Blagojevich could actually make himself look good by appointing a senator. He'd be using his gubernatorial powers to overcome a legislative dispute. And, if he appoints someone honest—or at least someone who looks honest—he can wash away some of the sleaze that's been clinging to him since he was caught on tape trying to fence the seat as though it were a hot Cadillac. Thanks to the governor's big mouth, that seat is no longer "[bleeping] golden"—it's not even bleeping silver, bronze, or nickel plate—and he is going to have to give it up for bleeping nothing.
Obviously, Blagojevich can't appoint anyone he mentioned on the tape. So Candidates 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are out. Jesse Jackson Jr. will have to run for the Senate on his own. But there are several politicians who could take the seat on an interim basis—until a special election or until 2010—without being tainted as "Blagojevich's choice."
The most obvious are three ex-senators who have occupied that seat already: Adlai Stevenson III, Alan Dixon, and Carol Moseley Braun. Stevenson and Dixon would surely be interim senators. Stevenson is 78 and never enjoyed the Senate—he wanted to be governor, like his father. Dixon is 81. They don't have political futures to worry about. Braun, who served one troubled term before losing a re-election bid, would satisfy calls to keep an African-American in the seat, but she would probably run for a full term—and lose again. She tried to get back into the Senate in 2004, but after failing to round up support from fellow Democrats, she settled on a symbolic campaign for president.
Appointing an ex-senator would also make it harder for Reid to carry out his threat of rejecting a Blagojevich appointee. "Please understand that should you decide to ignore the request of the Senate Democratic Caucus and make an appointment we would be forced to exercise our Constitutional authority under Article I, Section 5, to determine whether such a person should be seated," Reid wrote to Blagojevich on Dec. 10.
Although the Senate is the judge of its members' qualifications, Reid may be overstepping his authority. In the 1969 case Powell v. McCormack, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress is limited to determining whether a person meets the constitutional requirements for membership—30 years old, nine years a citizen, and a resident of his state—or was legitimately elected. "Saying the appointee lacks the necessary 'qualifications' simply because the appointing governor is believed to be corrupt or untrustworthy or deserving of removal seems to be foreclosed by Powell v. McCormack," said Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA School of Law. "And the 'elections' and 'returns' provision would only allow them to refuse to seat a senator if there are allegations that this seat was obtained through bribery or other illegal conduct. If he picked somebody who'd never been talked about as a possible source of a bribe, it's hard to see how his appointment could be disqualified."
If Blagojevich doesn't want a second-time-around senator, he could pick Sheila Simon, a former member of the Carbondale City Council and daughter of Sen. Paul Simon. Or former Rep. Glenn Poshard, who lost a race for governor against now-imprisoned George Ryan and is now president of Southern Illinois University. Geographically and politically, they're as far as you can get from the Cook County Democratic machine. Blagojevich could also appoint a committee to recommend a senator, removing himself from the decision.
Blagojevich not only has the right to make this appointment, he has the responsibility.
And if any Illinois readers are hollering about that statement, consider this: In Rod Blagojevich, we have the governor we deserve. When four out of eight governors end up in handcuffs, you have to start wondering whether the office itself is as much a problem as the men who occupy it. Illinois is one of five states with no limits on campaign contributions. In our freewheeling political culture, grabbing as much money as you can is a matter of survival. Blagojevich spent $17 million to win his last election—three times as much as his Republican opponent. Not only do our governors have the motive to sell offices, they have the opportunity. The Illinois Constitution provides for a strong governorship, with the power to appoint boards that spend tax money. Not surprisingly, these appointments often go to big political donors or their friends.
"One reason that he was able to raise enough money to crush his opposition was that he had so much to sell," said James L. Merriner, author of a book on Blagojevich's predecessor, the equally shady George Ryan. "There are so many commissions and pension boards and toll-way authorities and all these administrative agencies that are usually out of public view."
We elected Blagojevich—twice—and we're stuck with him for the next few months, at least. We should encourage him to pick Obama's replacement, since we can't seem to figure out how to pick one ourselves. A Blagojevich senator is better than no senator at all. And he did promise us one by Christmas.