The Senator From Blagojevich
Why Illinois' current governor should appoint Illinois' next senator.
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.
Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, to be released in May by Bloomsbury Press. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich by Scott Olson/Getty Images.