Published December 14, 2008
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Anyone who wants a peek inside Gov. Rod Blagojevich's head should look back to last year, when the Illinois House voted on his plan for the biggest tax increase in state history.
Not a single lawmaker voted for the $7 billion tax -- a stunning rebuke of the governor's leadership and legislative know-how.
His reaction to the defeat: "Today, I think, was basically an up ... I feel good about it."
Whether you call it optimism or delusion, Blagojevich has always acted as if nothing can ever go wrong for him. He paints himself as the hero and others as the villain, once even claiming he was in God's corner in a legislative battle.
That same bravado may shape his response to federal charges that he tried to sell or trade President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat and shake down businesses seeking state deals. Blagojevich has, so far, ignored calls for him to resign and has consulted an attorney known for fighting charges, not cutting deals.
Throughout his two terms as governor, the Chicago Democrat has run roughshod over those who disagree with him -- accusing lawmakers of spending like drunken sailors and calling the State Board of Education a Soviet-style bureaucracy.
State Sen. Mike Jacobs, a fellow Democrat from East Moline, once emerged in a rage from Blagojevich's office, telling reporters the two nearly came to blows when Blagojevich shouted obscenities at him, balled up his fist, threatened to punish a university in Jacobs' district and threatened to ruin his career for not supporting a health care plan.
Jacobs wasn't surprised to learn that federal wiretaps caught Blagojevich openly discussing potentially illegal behavior even though the governor knew he was under investigation.
"It just suggests to me that he was a very narcissistic individual," Jacobs said. "He doesn't have enough sense to walk away. I think he thinks that he's innocent and he's going to beat this thing."
The attitude of righteousness has kept Blagojevich going through political clashes, corruption scandals, family feuds and plummeting job-approval ratings. It also has contributed to those problems, with Blagojevich rushing forward without building support for his ideas or considering other views.
"I think he liked the fight. I think he enjoyed the battle, so it was good to have an enemy," said Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross.
Blagojevich, 52, entered the governor's office in 2003 promising to shake things up.
He was the first Democrat to win the office since 1972. A young showman replacing a gray and grumpy incumbent who wound up in prison, Blagojevich promised to clean up government and end backroom deals.
He made no secret of his interest in someday becoming president.
But once in office, Blagojevich quickly began alienating people.
He sent a "cease and desist" letter to his own father-in-law, a Chicago alderman who had included the governor's name on his stationery. After other clashes -- including public allegations by his father-in-law that Blagojevich had traded state appointments for campaign donations -- the two men stopped speaking entirely.
Blagojevich offended many Illinoisans by refusing to move to the Executive Mansion in Springfield, choosing to live in Chicago instead. He even canceled the tradition of letting children trick-or-treat at the mansion.
Visits to the Capitol itself have been rare and usually brief. During one busy session, he used the state plane to fly to Springfield every morning and home again every night, at a total cost to taxpayers of nearly $100,000.
He has often ordered legislators to meet in special session day after day without any clear purpose, disrupting their private lives while he stayed home.
Most famously, he enjoyed a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game while legislators voted on a transportation measure he wanted badly. The measure failed.
Eventually, legislators decided to ignore the governor and pass a version of the transportation bill over his objections. Blagojevich was forced to capitulate, but he declared victory after sticking in a provision giving free public-transit rides to senior citizens.
"What I will do is essentially take what I believe to be a lemon and turn it into lemonade," Blagojevich said.
Voters gave Blagojevich a second term in 2006 despite signs that his administration was corrupt. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said he was investigating evidence of "endemic hiring fraud" and a river of news stories raised questions.
Blagojevich won partly because he's a good campaigner and partly because he raised huge amounts of money, much of it from people and groups that do business with the state. He spent $16 million, compared with $6 million for his Republican opponent, whom he portrayed as a corrupt extension of the previous GOP governor.
Blagojevich had plenty going for him when he took office.
He enjoyed a Democratic majority in the Legislature. The public was eager for change, particularly when it came to his top priorities, education and health care. He can be charming, both one-on-one and speaking to the public at large.
But Blagojevich's combative approach to the Legislature produced a long list of spectacular failures and relatively few successes.
On health care, he was able to make government insurance available to every child in Illinois who needs it. But an effort to provide access to health care for everyone was soundly rejected, despite his attempt to claim the moral high ground.
"It will be Armageddon, but we are on the side of the Lord and we will prevail," he said.
Blagojevich then tried to launch part of the program without legislative approval, angering lawmakers and triggering a long court battle.
Even before Blagojevich was arrested, his public approval had melted away, hitting just 13 percent in one recent poll.
"Rod Blagojevich had a chance to be one of the great governors in America. He had a chance to be a hero," said state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie. "This is truly a guy who has stuck it to himself."