Published November 17, 2014
All people may be equal before the law, but when a judge sentenced Rod Blagojevich to prison this week, he made clear the punishment did more than fit the crime. It fit the criminal and his august political office.
"The abuse of the office of governor is more damaging than the abuse of any other office except the president's," Judge James Zagel said, sentencing Blagojevich to 14 years for corruption. In doing so, the judge not only disposed of the latest scandal in a parade of misconduct that has seen elected officials shamed in recent years. He pointed out the singular place in U.S. politics reserved for state chief executives, even as much of voters' focus has been on Washington.
The governors' chair is an increasingly powerful institution in most states, with the clout, control and visibility that has long made it the leading stepping stone to the Oval Office. But while everyone talks about the presidency, the state of the American governorship gets little attention.
When reports of corruption or scandal erupt in Washington, many voters view it as a distant, institutional problem, a disease that infects politicians once they breathe too deeply of the political air that clouds the nation's capital.
But "when it's close to home, when it's your governor, the most important person in your state, it kind of says something about your state. It's like corruption in your family," said David Andersen, assistant research professor at the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University.
Americans voters often think of their mayors as neighbors. But a governor, while frequently seen in local news, is simultaneously familiar and unapproachable, a steward of the state who appear almost as a "little president," Andersen said.
Over the last decade, however, scandal has consumed a depressingly long list of governors, exposing a sordid mix of ego and greed.
Connecticut's John G. Rowland resigned in 2004 and served 10 months in prison for accepting gifts from state contractors and lying about it. That same year, James McGreevey resigned as New Jersey's governor after admitting to an affair with another man he had hired for a state post. Blagojevich's predecessor, George Ryan, was convicted in 2006 of steering contracts to friends. New York's Eliot Spitzer resigned in 2008 after confessing to patronizing prostitutes. In 2010, South Carolina's Mark Sanford acknowledged an affair with a woman in Argentina, maintained through misuse of state money.
And that's not even counting governors tarred by misconduct when the job was already done. It wasn't until the last few days of his second term that California's Arnold Schwarzenegger was forced to admit to an adulterous affair. And just one day after Blagojevich was sentenced, former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was subpoenaed by Congress to testify about his management of MF Global, the financial firm that collapsed this fall with $1.2 billion of its clients money gone missing.
"The governor is the leader of the state. When they're shown to be corrupt, I do think it has the ability to really discourage people and make them feel like our state is going down the tubes," said Brad McMillan, executive director of the Institute for Principled Leadership at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.
It's hard to say whether something about the modern governorship makes it more prone to scandal. But experts agree that the office — and the expectations surrounding it — have most certainly changed.
Since the days of the New Deal, governors have been gaining power in most states, said Thad Beyle, a retired professor at the University of North Carolina who tracks the changes. State legislators have granted governors the right to serve longer terms and the ability to serve multiple terms. Governors have been given increased veto power and greater control over appointments.
Federal New Deal programs pushed states to take on new responsibilities, creating the need for more agencies and departments, with governors in charge. In more recent years, governors have taken charge of some of the homeland security responsibilities that have come with the threat of terrorism.
"One power that has been limited has been patronage" — what was once a governor's privilege to dole out of jobs to friends and contributors, said Susan Hansen, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. Hansen recalls that such favoritism was at one time widely accepted from politicians whose used their power to grease the wheels of political machines.
"The old days are gone. In some cases, that's the way they did business, but those old ways don't work now," Beyle said.
Andersen speculates that if Blagojevich had engaged in similar conduct in the 1930s, he might not even have been charged. But public expectations of governors have risen. Hansen said that has been accompanied by a change in the types of people who serve as governors, with many now proving themselves as capable managers rather than just glad-handing politicians.
But there is also much less tolerance by the public for what used to be dismissed as political horse-trading, and those standards reflected in media reporting that exposes misconduct.
Still, the power at a governor's disposal, together with the egos of those who believe they're uniquely qualified to run a state, increase the temptation for misconduct, Andersen said. He and others pointed out that while media have increasingly focused limited resources on national political coverage, many newspapers and television stations have pulled back on coverage from state capitals.
Polls repeatedly show the public's trust in politicians is declining, with support for Congress falling to an all-time low of 9 percent. But presidents and governors occupy a special place in the political hierarchy. Judge Zagel said as much this week when he told Blagojevich that "when it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired."
It leaves voters feeling that their disgraced governor has become their symbol of their state for those elsewhere. In Illinois, where four of the last nine governors have served jail time, the damage has bred despair rather than outrage.
"Unfortunately, I think a lot of Illinoisans have just thrown their hands in the air and given up on the political system. But that's not the answer," he said. "What is it going to take for Illinois voters to rise up and say, 'We've had enough'?"
Associated Press writer Christopher Wills in Springfield, Ill., contributed to this report.