CHICAGO – And you thought you had troubles with your in-laws?
Gov. Rod Blagojevich (search) suffered a blistering attack from his own father-in-law, a powerful Chicago alderman who helped get him elected in the first place.
Chicago is a city of bare-knuckle politics. But it is also a place where political families reward and protect their own. And Richard Mell's (search) complaint that his son-in-law would "throw anyone under the bus" and his allegations of graft in Blagojevich's administration have some political observers scratching their heads.
"This is bizarre. I've never seen anything quite like this, in my career anyway. We've had political feuds. I've never seen a significant family feud, let alone one that gets as open and as wild as this," said longtime political analyst Don Rose.
An apparently long-simmering disagreement between the two became public earlier this month when Blagojevich shut down a landfill run by a distant relative of his in-laws. Mell responded by telling reporters his son-in-law was destroying the family.
And he added a more serious accusation: that Blagojevich's chief fund-raiser had traded government appointments for $50,000 campaign contributions.
The allegation prompted the attorney general and county prosecutor to open an investigation.
Mell retracted his statement last week after the fund-raiser threatened to sue for defamation. Mell said that the allegations were an "exaggerated extrapolation made by me in the heat of the moment," and that he had based them on published report last fall that found more than 120 appointees had given a total of $1.9 million to Blagojevich's campaign fund.
Blagojevich, a 48-year-old Democrat who rolled into office two years ago as a fresh-faced advocate of reform following the scandal-tainted Republican George Ryan, has tried to turn the bickering to his advantage, saying repeatedly that he cares about his father-in-law but has to look out for the welfare of the state.
"The family is fine. We're all good. We all love one another, but that's all I'm going to say about private, family issues in a public setting," Blagojevich said Friday. "I was hired to be governor of Illinois. The people of Illinois don't want me to be engaged in some kind of a family soap opera."
Chicago being Chicago, some are wondering whether the feud is part of some kind of supremely Machiavellian scheme to help Blagojevich publicly distance himself from Mell and his Chicago ties, which could hurt Blagojevich in the rest of the state.
So far, the governor seems to have come through unscathed, said Mike Lawrence, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University (search) in Carbondale.
"I don't look for this to have a long-term impact unless the investigations turn up scandal in the administration," Lawrence said. "It's helping his image in the short-term because it makes him look like an independent who is putting the state's interests ahead of those of members of his family."
The feud came to a head when the governor ordered the state Environmental Protection Agency (search) to investigate a landfill owned by Frank Schmidt, a distant cousin of Mell's wife. The governor's office said it acted after it learned Schmidt was telling customers he could evade permit requirements because of his family ties. The agency shut it down, citing it for violations.
"For us, it's a very clear message that there's not special treatment for anybody, it doesn't matter if you're the wife's cousin," Deputy Gov. Bradley Tusk said.
Mell was furious, and said the move was retribution for his criticism of the governor in the past. He lamented that Blagojevich had replaced him as an adviser with the fund-raiser, Christopher Kelly, whom he compared to a "trophy wife" because Mell had been cast aside in favor of someone new.
Schmidt disputed the violations and denied he was using the governor's name, and he reopened his landfill a few days later under a deal agreed to by a judge.
Blagojevich, a former congressman and son of an immigrant steelworker, has pursued a populist agenda, fighting the sale of violent video games to youngsters, helping residents buy cheaper prescription drugs from Europe and Canada, and buying thousands of doses of flu vaccine overseas in hopes of easing a shortage at home. (He is still awaiting federal approval to bring the vaccine into the country.)
State lawmakers at first went along with his plans but have since accused the governor of trying to get attention with pet projects while the state is probably facing another multibillion-dollar deficit.
"Everything he's doing seems to be directed toward a run for the presidency," said one frequent critic, Sen. Denny Jacobs, a Democrat from East Moline. "I think he needs to govern."