Barack Obama had begun thinking about his Senate successor even before the presidential election, and dispatched Rahm Emanuel days after the vote to contact aides of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to begin talking up Obama's preferred candidates, associates of Emanuel said this weekend.
Emanuel, a congressman from Chicago, had been approached about being Obama's White House chief of staff the week before the election, though he hadn't yet officially decided to take the post. Nonetheless, the issue of Obama's Senate replacement was sensitive enough that senior Obama aides wanted to keep the matter within the circle of Illinois political figures, according to people familiar with campaign deliberations at the time.
Among those in Obama's inner circle, Emanuel had one of the closest relationships to Blagojevich, a Democrat. He had succeeded Blagojevich in 2002 to the House seat that covered Chicago's near north side.
Emanuel didn't talk to Blagojevich directly about the matter, by phone or in person, according to people familiar with the matter. He spoke by phone with aides to the governor, those people say.
Neither Emanuel nor representatives of the transition team would comment for this article.
The Chicago Tribune reported Saturday that Emanuel relayed to Blagojevich's team a list of candidates who would be acceptable to the Obama camp, and that these conversations were captured on a tape possessed by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. There is no evidence that this was part of a deal or quid pro quo.
As these revelations emerged, Republicans on Sunday sought to take advantage of Blagojevich's troubles by pushing for a special election to fill Obama's Senate seat, which would deprive Democrats of the chance to name their own candidate. Such an election could cost upward of $30 million. But Republican Congressman-elect Aaron Schock of Peoria said on a conference call with reporters, "You can't put a price tag on good government."
Meanwhile, leaders of the Illinois General Assembly have said they will begin impeachment proceedings Monday, as well as introduce bills to set a special election for the Senate seat and to strip the governor of his authority to fill the seat. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed papers Friday with the state Supreme Court seeking to strip Blagojevich of his powers.
Blagojevich's spokesman on Sunday denied rumors that the governor will step down Monday. "I'm sure that he's not resigning," Lucio Guerrero said. Instead, Blagojevich intends to be in his Chicago office Monday signing a bill to give tax credits to film makers if they come to Illinois.
The conversations between Emanuel and Blagojevich aides on the Senate vacancy were the latest chapter in a long, if not particularly close, relationship between the Illinois governor and one of the state's most prominent congressmen. As two rising stars of the Illinois Democratic Party -- Blagojevich is now 52 years old; Emanuel is 49 -- it was natural that they would have contact over the years.
Now the conversations about the Senate seat may be central to whether Blagojevich's legal and political problems will spill over and affect the president-elect before he even takes office. The discussions themselves don't suggest anything improper, legal experts say. Obama advisers say it was natural for the president-elect to take an interest in his successor.
Obama advisers also said they assumed that some of Emanuel's conversations with Blagojevich aides were caught on tape, since it was widely known Blagojevich was under federal investigation and that likely meant his communications were being monitored.
Emanuel and Blagojevich's paths first crossed in a significant way when Emanuel decided to run for the U.S. House seat Blagojevich was vacating in 2002 to seek the governorship.
Blagojevich didn't endorse Emanuel or any other candidate. But he did Emanuel a favor in that race, in a sense, by declining to endorse his most prominent opponent, Nancy Kaszak. Kaszak specifically asked Blagojevich for his endorsement and believed she had reason to expect it, but she never heard back from him.
"I'd lived in district for 23 years. Rahm was newer to the district,"Kaszak said. "And I'd been active in the community. So there are reasons I would know the community well and be paying attention to servicing it. I'd hoped that [Blagojevich] would give me that support."
Blagojevich won the governor's race that year and Emanuel ascended to Congress. After that, by all accounts, their interaction was relatively limited.