Blagojevich die-hards the kind ousted governor would want on jury deciding his fate
CHICAGO – One woman clapped the instant she saw Rod Blagojevich emerge from a courthouse elevator. An elderly woman, in tears, handed him a piece of candy in court and said she'd pray for him. On the sidewalk outside court, another person once held a placard that read, "Rod's not cuckoo, Rod's not guilty."
While many have come to revile or laugh at Illinois' disgraced former governor, a small but dedicated band of supporters gathered at the courthouse during his seven-week corruption trial to cheer him.
No matter about Blagojevich's job ratings sinking to nearly 10 percent before he left office, or revelations about his alleged criminal schemings, or all the salty language the FBI captured on the wiretaps played in court. This odd bunch — mostly senior citizens — insisted they were sticking with him.
"The trial hasn't dented my confidence in him at all," May Farley, 78, the woman who held the "Rod's not cuckoo" sign, said after closing arguments. "It's only furthered my liking of him."
Blagojevich, who usually hammed it up for the crowd each day, surely hopes to find such a sympathizer on the jury, which begins its fourth day of deliberations Monday. All it takes is one or two people digging in their heels to produce a hung jury or possibly persuade others that Blagojevich did not seek to sell an appointment to President Barack Obama's old Senate seat or use the power of his office to enrich himself.
Judges try to screen jurors for any overwhelming biases before they are seated at trials. But after closing arguments, Blagojevich's lawyers said they saw signs of sympathy in the faces of some jurors.
"There are several I think are with us," said defense attorney Sam Adam Sr.
Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor, said Blagojevich was always better at campaigning than governing. But Simpson didn't think Blagojevich's knack for winning over strangers would sway jurors.
"I don't think the charm can outweigh the evidence," Simpson said.
Blagojevich, elected governor twice, once had more widespread popularity. He boasted a job-approval rating of around 55 percent in early 2004 — after his first year in power. That sank to just above 10 percent in the weeks before his 2008 arrest. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The Serbian-American with the hard-to-pronounce name swept to power vowing to fight corruption. He billed himself as a defender of the little guy, the elderly and minorities, and was especially proud of his successful push for legislation that let seniors ride public transport for free.
At the courthouse, the Blagojevich fans insisted it was their own idea to come and support him. When asked if they might have been recruited or paid, one called the idea "ridiculous."
On Wednesday, an elderly woman who said she was Serbian-American leaned over a spectator's bench and told Blagojevich she was praying for him. He tapped his hand on his heart. Later, she handed him chocolate candy made in Serbia.
Among Blagojevich's staunchest supporters while he was in office were African-Americans. According to a Chicago Tribune poll in fall 2006, his job-approval rating among blacks was nearly 70 percent.
Zakiyyah Muhammad, who clapped as Blagojevich got off the elevator, describes herself as an independent activist. She says Blagojevich channeled more state money to black neighborhoods than other governors.
And, the 64-year-old added, "He felt comfortable coming to our community. It wasn't an act."
The jury in Blagojevich's case is comprised of eight whites, three blacks and one Asian-American. There's a religious elderly man, an older woman fond of knitting and a retired state health official.
In one of the FBI recordings played in court, Blagojevich acknowledged his support had dwindled.
"(I gave) your grandmother a free (bleeping) ride on a bus. And what do I get for that? Only 13 percent of you all out there think I'm doing a good job," he says of his Illinois constituents. "So (bleep) all of you!"
Theresa Gajdos isn't among the ungrateful masses. "All those senior citizens who can go back forth on transportation and can now do it free — that's thanks to him," said the 82-year-old.
To show her support, she went to Blagojevich's house one day to hold a placard referring to former President Gerald Ford's pardon of his predecessor. It read, "If Nixon could be pardoned, so can be pardoned Blagojevich too."
But what of the revelations at trial? Overall, Blagojevich comes across in the wiretaps as greedy and self-absorbed, peppering almost every conversation with four-letter words.
Surely, that's taken the shine off him even to his most passionate supporters? Not to those at the courthouse.
"We all do that," Muhammad said about the profanity. "It doesn't mean you're not a good person."