It’s only been a few months since the Spitzer scandal, but here we go again! In a shocking development that is bound to have major political repercussions, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was taken into custody this morning by FBI agents on corruption charges.
Blagojevich had long been surround by ethical problems that drove his approval rating to record lows. But the most stunning allegation he now faces is one that comes as a surprise to us all - an attempt to profit from the Senate vacancy created by Obama’s election by selling that seat in exchange for political and/or financial favors!
A Senate seat “is a fucking valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing,” Blagojevich allegedly said in a conversation taped by the FBI.
In particular, Blagojevich is accused of pressuring Obama’s transition team for a position - HHS Secretary or an ambassadorship - in exchange for appointing Obama aide Valerie Jarrett. (Frankly, it’s hard not to get the impression that Blagojevich was simply deranged, given his incredibly ridiculous-sounding hopes of extorting money out of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates in the context of a Jarrett appointment.)
Jarrett withdrew her name from consideration in late November and tapes showing Blagojevich ranting against Obama suggest the transition team refused to entertain the Illinois Governor.
Blagojevich also allegedly tried to get concessions from a union in exchange for appointing a labor-friendly Senator. And in what could become the most explosive story of this whole sordid affair, the indictment complaint refers to a “Senate candidate 5″ who offered something “tangible up front!” - in what is further confirmation that Blagojevich was pursuing all possible avenues of profiting from his appointment. From the complaint document:
“Blagojevich said that he might be able to cut a deal with Senate Candidate 5 that provided Blagojevich with something “tangible up front.” Noting that he was going to meet with Senate Candidate 5 in the next few days, Blagojevich told Fundraiser A to reach out to an intermediary (Individual D), from whom Blagojevich is attempting to obtain campaign contributions and which Blagojevich believes is close to Senate Candidate 5.”
Marc Ambinder notes that the context implies that Candidate 5 is Jesse Jackson Jr, though this remains to be determined and other hints point to State Senate President Emil Jones. (We know that Candidate 5 is not Valerie Jarrett and Attorney General Lisa Madigan. We also know, from the complaint document, that Candidate 5 is someone the Obama team did not want to see appointed.)
Just as in New York, the appointment process had become rather problematic with the governor having sole discretion and seemingly more worried about what could help their own electoral prospects than anything else. In Delaware, meanwhile, Governor Ruth appointed an extremely low-profile Democrat to make sure Biden’s son can run in an open seat in 2010 - a transparent case of nepotism.
But Blagojevich’s alleged actions take these problems to an entirely different - and fairly stunning - level. And the charges surrounding Obama’s Senate seat are just the tip of the iceberg! Blagojevich faces numerous other accusations, for example of having announced an $1.8 billion plan to construct new highways in exchange for a highway contractor’s pledge to raise half-a-million dollars for his upcoming campaign.
What comes next is anyone’s guess. What seems fairly certain is that Blagojevich will be forced to step down - either through his resignation or through impeachment, as the state legislature is already staring the proceedings. That means that Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, will become Governor in the weeks or months ahead.
This is in some ways good news for Democrats, as they will finally be rid of Blagojevich and his record unpopularity and allowing them to have a better candidate - presumably Quinn, though he could face a primary - in the 2010 gubernatorial race. It is also good news for the left, as Quinn is considered far more progressive than Blagojevich - something that could also play an impact on his choice of a Senator.
That said, the Senate appointment is now a huge question mark: Blagojevich is now in jail, but he is still Governor and could at any time appoint Obama’s successor - a possibility Democrats are taking seriously. Needless to say, any Democrat appointed by Blagojevich would be tainted and face a very difficult path to re-election. The Senate might refuse to seat a Blagojevich appointee, but all of this would naturally be very embarrassing to Democrats.
If Quinn gets to make the choice, there will be a shake-up in the Senate contenders: centrist and Blagojevich-aide Tammy Duckworth’s stock would probably fall, while progressive Rep. Schakowsky would be back in the running. If he is indeed “Senate Candidate 5,” Jesse Jackson Jr. would probably also not be in too good shape. One last fascinating question: will Valerie Jarrett signal that she would like to be considered again?
Furthermore, and however glad they are to be rid of Blagojevich, Illinois Democrats could certainly take a hit from this. One important reason that they become so dominant statewide over the past decade is that the state GOP collapsed under numerous scandals - the most prominent involving Republican Governor George Ryan, who is now serving a jail sentence. Now, it is the Democrats’ turn to discredit themselves, giving the GOP an opening to paint themselves as the cleaner and more reformed state party.
That all of this is occurring in the backyard of the new President-elect is of course an additional headache for Democrats, who want to make sure that Barack Obama is in no way involved in these scandals.
That Blagjoevich appears to have repeatedly cursed at Obama in the FBI’s recordings and that he sounded angry that the new Democratic Administration was unwilling to give him a job in exchange for a Jarrett appointment should help the President-elect keep his distance from the disgraced governor.