Are family ties thicker than political ones? Not in Illinois when a Governor nearing a re-election campaign is pitted against a street-smart ward politico who happens to be his father-in-law. The simmering feud between Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and his wife's father, Chicago alderman Dick Mell, reached a boiling point last week. In a press conference, the Governor lashed out at his in-law amid reports that a grand jury is investigating allegations by Mell that Blagojevich's administration traded jobs for campaign contributions. Blagojevich denied the charges and asserted that the investigation was started only because he had the "testicular virility" to launch a probe of his father-in-law's alleged misdeeds.
The bad blood between the fellow Democrats surfaced last January when Blagojevich ordered the closing of a waste dump operated by a distant cousin of his wife Patti. Her outraged father admitted helping the dump's owner but denied having any financial stake in it. And he shot back with pay-for-play allegations against his son-in-law's administration. Although Mell later retracted the charges, a grand jury investigation was launched, and Blagojevich aides have reportedly been subpoenaed. In more ways than one, Patti Blagojevich is caught in the middle. The Governor's office acknowledged last week that the first lady, a real estate agent, has had a longtime business relationship with a developer involved in the inquiry. As for airing the dirty family laundry, her father would say only that the affair "is unfortunate for our family and unfortunate for the state." The Governor told TIME, "I fully expected these attacks because I made powerful interests angry." Blagojevich, who defeated then state attorney general Jim Ryan in 2002, has seen his approval rating drop sharply, from 52% to 35% in a recent poll. "This is a fight that should have been avoided at all costs," says Paul Green, director of policy studies at Roosevelt University. "It can't be a positive for him." Or for the next family picnic. -By David E.Thigpen