Since last week's arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on allegations of corruption, there's been much speculation about who will get to name President-elect Obama's replacement in the U.S. Senate, the seat Blogojevich was accused of trying to auction off.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he'll refuse to seat anyone Blagojevich might try to nominate before he resigns or is forced out of office. But the far more interesting question isn't who will do the naming, but who will eventually be named.
Just about every powerful Democrat in Illinois politics had at one point been mentioned as a possibility. The Democrats know that at this point, anyone Blagojovich names will be tainted. But it seems likely that, fair or not, most leading candidates for the position will have to fight off the perception of corruption, even if eventually named by Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.
So allow me to make an unconventional suggestion for the seat: the Democrats should nominate the last person to hold it, former Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican.
It's not as crazy as it sounds. I first wrote about Fitzgerald in 2004, as he was retiring from his brief stint in politics. He served just one term in the Senate. He won his seat in 1998, after defeating the incumbent senator, Carol Mosely-Braun, who was battling corruption charges of her own at the time.
The reason Fitzgerald's career in politics was so abbreviated is that Fitzgerald isn't your typical politician, and he's most certainly not your typical politician from Illinois. He's principled, he's frugal with taxpayer money, and he has no tolerance for public corruption. That's why he retired from the Senate after only one term. And it's why now would a good time to bring him back.
By the time he retired, Fitzgerald had managed to anger most of his state's congressional delegation, his own party's leadership, some of the most powerful lobbyists and special interest groups in Illinois and much of his home state's media — in other words, all the right people.
When it came time for Fitzgerald to consider running for re-election, he realized he didn't have his party's backing (they had been recruiting someone to run against him in the Republican primary for years), and he decided to retire. The GOP's first choice for Fitzgerald's seat, Jack Ryan, dropped out after a sex scandal. The party had to settle on gadfly candidate Alan Keyes, who was then clobbered by Barack Obama.
It's almost eerie just how relevant the stands Fitzgerald took during his six years in the Senate — positions that ended his political career — have become today.
Take pork-barrel spending, a high-profile issue in the last presidential campaign and an issue that has figured prominently in recent corruption investigations of members of both parties. Fitzgerald picked his first political fight in 2000 by ticking off then-House Speaker and fellow Illinoisan, Rep. Denny Hastert, when Hastert tried to secure millions in federal pork for an upgrade to the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill. When the bill including Hastert's library earmark reached the Senate, Fitzgerald filibustered, to draw attention to his own party's wasteful spending and the fact that the project wasn't subject to competitive bidding.
Later, Hastert and the rest of the Illinois congressional delegation sent a letter to President Bush urging him to lend his support to more federal pork projects in Illinois. Fitzgerald refused to sign, explaining in a letter to other members of his state's delegation that "the mere fact that a project is located somewhere in Illinois does not mean that it is inherently meritorious and necessarily worthy of support."
Taxpayers are now on the hook for $7 trillion in government promises to private companies that made bad business decisions, leading many to question if the Republican Party has lost its free-market bearings. Fitzgerald fought that fight, too. He was the only U.S. senator to oppose the $15 billion bailout of the major airlines shortly after the September 11 attacks. Before being outvoted 99-1, Fitzgerald took to the floor of the Senate and, in a speech he called "Who Will Bail Out the American Taxpayer?", explained that the airlines' failures weren't due to the attacks so much as to a lack of preparation for a crisis and perpetually flawed business plans. It's a speech the Senate could stand to hear again.
Fitzgerald told me in an interview a few years ago that his proudest achievement in the Senate was his work to kill a $13 billion plan to expand Chicago's O'Hare airport. The plan would have required seizing dozens of private homes, and federalizing the project would have shut out local input about how it would be implemented.
It's interesting to contrast Fitzgerald's proudest moment to what former party leader Hastert — who led the charge to oust Fitzgerald — considers his proudest achievements as the longest-serving speaker in the House of Representatives: in an interview with the Associated Press shortly before he stepped down, Hastert listed a $300 million bailout for Chicago-based United Airlines, an $800 million grant from the federal government to help Illinois government cover its budget shortfall (brought on by excessive spending), and a $16 billion Pentagon pork project to lease modified jetliners as fuel tankers, a boon to the Boeing plant just outside Chicago.
In retrospect, Fitzgerald's most notable achievement may have been a stand he took that, oddly enough, contributed to the fall of Blagojevich. In the spring of 2001, a U.S. Attorney vacancy opened up in Illinois. Traditionally, senators who represent the state where there's a U.S. Attorney vacancy are asked to nominate someone for the president to appoint. By custom, senators nominate someone from the state party for these positions — big donors with a law degree, kin or friends of powerful politicians, sometimes even an actually qualified prosecutor.
At the time Fitzgerald was considering whom to nominate, state and federal prosecutors were investigating Illinois' Republican governor, George Ryan, on a wide range of corruption charges. Fitzgerald worried that an up-and-comer from the state party might hesitate to investigate his party's governor, or might face political pressure to go easy on Ryan. So he went out of state, nominating New York prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) to the position.
That decision won Sen. Fitzgerald the wrath of his party, conservative grassroots activists, and Karl Rove, who Fitzgerald says tried to browbeat him into nominating someone with more party loyalty (a bit of a foreshadowing of the coming scandal with the politicization of the Justice Department). It even won Fitzgerald contempt from Chicago newspaper columnists, who scolded him for not putting a native up for the job.
Sen. Fitzgerald's instincts were correct. U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald sent Ryan to prison. He'd go on to prosecute Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, and he now heads up the investigation into Blagojevich. He's one of few Bush Justice Department officials to show a contempt for corruption, no matter which party the corrupt official calls home.
I'm a libertarian, so there's plenty on which former Sen. Fitzgerald and I disagree. I'm sure most Democrats feel the same way, and would be hesitant about appointing a Republican to a seat they could just as easily fill with a Democrat — even a Republican who made a habit of undermining his party's leadership.
But what's to lose? Sen. Saxby Chambliss' runoff win in Georgia earlier this month secured the Republicans enough seats to mount a filibuster. The Democrats might even win some public favor if they were willing to recognize the historically low public trust in Congress at the moment, and could set aside partisanship to offer, at least temporarily, the seat to a bona fide clean government guy like Fitzgerald.
I don't know if Fitzgerald even wants the seat. I suspect he doesn't. Which is just another reason why he should have it. I'm of the opinion that the last people to whom we should be giving power are the people who openly clamor for it. But beyond the fulfilling sense of poetic justice that would come with giving the seat to Fitzgerald, he seems to be the one person who could restore some propriety and public trust in the seat — all the more so if he were to retake the seat at the request of the other party.
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