Included within are a few major story lines of recent weeks and days that combine to make this the perfect storm. First, Chicago has been in the limelight a lot of late given the rise of President-elect Obama, his residence on the south side of the city, and its role as a co-star in the historic election night speech in Grant Park.
Second, Obama's ascendance opened his Senate seat to the whims of the current Governor, Rod Blagojevich, who holds the sole power of replacement. Speculation his swirled in recent weeks as a host of local politicians have campaigned publicly and privately for the position, including Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., Congressman Danny Davis, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. The Governor had promised the fill the seat before long, perhaps by the end of the year.
Third, in what seems like a departure, but I ask you to hold on the for crescendo, the Chicago Tribune declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday. This came on the heels of Sam Zell's debt-leveraged buy-out of the media giant a little more than a year ago. As advertising revenues fell and the economy tanked, the Tribune was unable to make its debt payments despite recurring layoffs, resulting in a move to restructure the organization and renegotiate loan agreements.
Fourth, it has long been anticipated that our sitting Governor would meet the same fate as his predecessor, namely a criminal investigation yielding indictments while in office, and ultimately a prison sentence shortly after his departure. Last Friday, the Chicago Tribune presented clear evidence that the Fed's were on his trail in reporting that a close aide wore a wire and captured damning evidence of corruption. A follow-up story on Tuesday tied this same investigation to Blagojevich's quest to fill the Senate seat with perhaps a sweetened pot for the political benefactor.
Fifth, there has been a long-running investigation of political fundraiser and developer Antonin "Tony" Rezko, who raised money for Governor Blagojevich in exchange for political influence, appointments, regulatory body rulings, etc. Rezko, incidentally, is also tied a controversial real estate deal that President-elect Obama participated in back in 2006, where the two shared adjacent properties, and Obama received a portion of Rezko's land at a severely discounted price. While it appears that Obama is guilty here of nothing more than his self-described "bone-headed" decision to do business with an indicted and since convicted felon, it does speak to the pervasive culture of political corruption that envelopes this state. Incidentally, Rezko faces sentencing on January 6th.
These five variables came together Tuesday morning as US Attorney ordered the arrest of Blagojevich and his Chief of Staff, John Harris, then conducted a press coverage and made some of the damning details of the investigation he spearheaded public. I will tie them together in order.
One, to state the obvious, Chicago has long been known as a city of corruption since at least the days of Capone, and in the seven decades since under the guise of a political machine that dominated city, county, and often state politics. President-elect Obama helped to rehabilitate it some, though us locals knew that he was somehow able to rise above this embedded malfeasance, not rid us of the pervasive stench. Now the nation knows the name of our defamed Governor and the corrupt regime he presided over. In short, the shine of the new "Camelot" was dulled with one fell swoop.
Two, Governor Blagojevich's dealings centered specifically on a "pay-to-play" system of filling the vacated Senate seat. Several potential candidates are referenced anonymously in the affidavit, though none appear guilty by implication as of yet. It is widely speculated that Senate Candidate 1 is Valerie Plame, once though to be Obama's favored choice for his replacement, but now one of his top advisers. The wheeling and dealing of a surrogate of Senate Candidate 5, widely speculated to be Rep. Jackson, has also entered the fray, with the south side congressman expected to speak to the FBI tomorrow.
Blagojevich retains the power of replacing Obama until he either leaves office upon resignation, impeachment, or incapacitation, or the state legislation changes the means by which the process unfolds. Resignation is unlikely, and the impeachment process would probably take a significant amount of time to administer. It is possible, even likely, that the state legislature will vote to revoke the Governor's appointment power and call for a special election, but such a measure would require the governor's action. If something is passed in the near future, it allows the Governor 60 days to act, and the current legislature term expires within this time period, meaning they would be forced to try again early next year and perhaps wait it out once more. A veto can be overriden, but it requires executive action.
Interestingly enough, Blagojevich could make his appointment any day now, but the U.S. Senate reserves the right to refuse to seat a new member, and such a scenario is all but a given should he choose to act in such a bold, swift manner.
In the interim, a vacant seat deprives President-elect of a Democratic vote as he attempts to enact his ambitious agenda during the first 100 days of office. He currently is working with a Senate majority of 55 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with the party, leaving him 3 votes shy of a filibuster-proof majority (this could change to two should Al Franken prevail in the Minnesota recount).
Three, the affidavit references bargaining between the since-bankrupt Tribune and the Governor's office over the anticipated sale of the Chicago Cubs and preferential tax treatment the state could extend. In exchange, the Governor allegedly sought to have select members of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board fired for their consistent criticism of his administration and even a call for impeachment. To date, the Tribune has continued with its payroll slashing, but the editorial board has been spared, so it does not appear that CEO Sam Zell and company engaged in the proposed "pay-to-play" scheme, though he too has spoken with the FBI.
Four, the charges we were introduced to on Tuesday morning were shocking, even to those who expected that Blagojevich would be indicted before his current term expired in 2010. Having known that the Feds had their eyes fixed on his official conduct, it is beyond audacious that he apparently continued with his scheme to enrich himself, his family, and friends at the expense of state taxpayers. From this vantagepoint, it is difficult to see him avoiding the verdict of three of his recent predecessors: prison.
Five, and probably most pertinent to those who reside outside of the Land of Lincoln, it remains to be seen how the fallout of this scandal will impact the incoming administration of the President-elect. It appears as if the Obama-Blagojevich relationship has been distant in recent years, though Obama did endorse the incumbent Governor in 2006 and served on a small advisory committee for him during his first run from the position in 2002 along with his pick for Chief-of-Staff, Rahm Emmanuel. Any negotiations that the transition team had with the Governor's office will also be scrutinized. Tony Rezko, the man who ties the two together, will also be part of the equation as he speaks with federal investigators in a bid to reduce his pending sentencing.
This long-winded recount of the events of the past couple of days is by no means comprehensive and stands as only my first entry into this thicket of corruption close to home. My next post will address the threats to press freedoms that this case raises, and I will certainly weigh in on the pending drama over the vacant Senate seat as events unfold. Hold on tight, for I have a feeling that this political thriller is only in its first chapter.