For all the ridicule that the state of Illinois has suffered since the corruption scandal of its governor was first revealed, for all the jokes made at the expense of the Land of Lincoln's long, sordid history of graft, there is one thing that is often overlooked: Rod Blagojevich is the first governor of the state to be impeached.
Today's start of the feisty Chicago native's state senate trial, which will determine whether he is thrown out of office, is therefore a historic occasion. And like any media-savvy politician, Blagojevich isn't about to let history pass him by.
Sure, technically he won't be in attendance, and the betting is he could be ousted within a week. Blagojevich has made no secret of his disdain for the proceedings, calling the trial (which is separate from the ongoing federal criminal probe) the equivalent of a lynching and his inability to call witnesses a "trampling of the Constitution." But his outrageous media appearances and unpredictable moves have kept Blagojevich the unrivaled star of his own reality show, making the jury of his peers in state government look feckless by comparison. (See a gallery of politicians caught in scandals.)
In fact, Blagojevich's circus-like behavior since he was charged has angered and dismayed his colleagues in Springfield almost as much as the acts he is accused of committing, most notably trying to sell President Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat. Not only did he refuse to go quietly by resigning, but he has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, accusing legislators of plotting to overthrow him so they can push through tax hikes and generally bully all future governors. Blagojevich then surprised all observers by going ahead with an appointment to replace Obama; his choice of Roland Burris, a veteran African-American politician of impeccable credentials, turned out to be a shrewd move that Senate leaders in Washington reluctantly had to accept. And his stunning press conferences, during which Blagojevich has quoted poetry and presented himself as a defender of the ill and infirm, have made the entire impeachment process seem like a joke.
Blagojevich followed the same kamikaze strategy on Monday, appearing on Good Morning America (where he said he had briefly considered appointing Oprah Winfrey to Obama's Senate seat) and The View. In a pretaped interview for NBC's Today Show, he tossed out names like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., saying they gave him "perspective" in the storm that has erupted around him.
"Cuckoo" was the response of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley after Blagojevich's latest news conference on Friday, the same day that Blagojevich's top defense lawyer, Ed Genson never one to give up a fight threw in the towel on the governor. "I have practiced law for 44 years," Genson said to reporters. "I never require a client to do what I say, but I do require clients to listen to what I say." Among other things, Genson said he wasn't being included in key decisions on whether to file suit to attempt to block the impeachment trial.
Still, for all the governor's antics, some serious business will take place on Monday afternoon. The 59 members of the senate 37 Democrats and 22 Republicans will gather to begin considering the 13-point article of impeachment, with 40 votes needed for conviction. Some of the alleged offenses have nothing to do with the case laid out by federal prosecutors, including ignoring hiring laws to put political buddies in nice jobs and ignoring the will of the legislature by going ahead with expanded health-care programs. The senate has set aside 10 days for the trial, but given that the defendant isn't likely to show up, it could be much quicker.
David Ellis, the chief attorney for house speaker Michael Madigan, will prosecute the case. He was scheduled to call as many as 13 witnesses, including an FBI agent who has been allowed to testify, and he will likely play tapes of recorded conversations with Blagojevich from some of the thousands of hours of often crude conversations that the government has recorded to pursue its criminal case against Blagojevich for allegedly engaging in widespread pay-to-play politics.
"We have taken this very seriously. We've looked to the Clinton impeachment to figure out what's fair. But it's time to be statesmen," said Republican Matt Murphy. "This is about a lot more than just one guy, even if these last days have been pretty consistent with the way he's been acting the past six years. This is no joke. It's especially no joke to the people of Illinois." (Read "Where Are They Now: The Clinton Impeachment.")
Of course, grudges could come into play, and this is still a political, not a criminal, trial. But senate president John Cullerton was equally blunt, saying that playing politics with the trial could come back to bite the same senators sitting in Blagojevich's judgment.
"We take it seriously, and the rules we have adopted are fair," said Cullerton on Sunday night, adding that the proceedings were most closely matched to the Clinton impeachment hearings, with the exception that there will be a prosecutor instead of house managers. "I don't talk about the case or the outcome, just the rules. And the governor said the rules were unfair; we disagree with that. We could potentially be victims of impeachment if this was done in a political manner and not a professional manner. The rules could be used against us."