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Illinois Issues: Ten Years Later, Has Illinois Learned The Right Lessons From Blagojevich?

'I've got this thing, and it's (bleeping) golden.'

'I've got this thing, and it's (bleeping) golden.' Brian Mackey (illustration)/U.S. Government (photo)

News Analysis — Sunday, December 9, marked the 10th anniversary of the day the FBI arrested Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

The event led to his impeachment, criminal conviction and a 14-year prison sentence. There were also changes in state ethics laws.

But there are those who say the corruption was not the worst part of the Blagojevich administration — and I am among them. I'll make that argument in this week's Illinois Issues in-depth report.

You know those events where people say "you'll always remember where you were when you heard the news"? For anyone even remotely connected to Illinois government, Dec. 9, 2008, is one of those days.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin.

Photo Credit: Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

"I was in bed," says state Rep. Jim Durkin, a Republican from Western Springs. "My wife was in the adjoining bathroom with the TV on, and then she called me over here and said, 'Get over here — you've got to see this.'"

Word of Blagojevich's arrest was international news, helped in part by the fact that the charges included attempting to sell then-President-elect Barack Obama's soon-to-be-vacant seat in the U.S. Senate.

"The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald told reporters. "The governor's own words describing the Senate seat: Quote 'I've got this thing, and it's (bleeping) golden. And I'm just not giving it up for (bleeping) nothing.”

"Those are his words, not our characterization, other than with regard to the bleep," Fitzgerald added.

He would also describe the stuff about the Senate seat as "the most cynical behavior in all this, the most appalling." It's certainly what rivited the nation, to the extent that Blagojevich became a recurring character on Saturday Night Live.

But the Obama Senate seat was just one part of the criminal case. There were also allegations of shakedowns for campaign contributions.

Ultimately, however, those were not the only trespasses that got Blagojevich impeached. The House of Representatives also detailed his disregard for the separation of powers, his mismanagement of state programs, and allegations that he violated hiring laws.

What he did to the the finances of the state during a very important time, to me was as bad as the crimes that he was convicted of."State Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs)

But even all that, I would argue, is not Blagojevich's deepest scar on Illinois government. State Rep. Jim Durkin, now the House Republican Leader — he's the one who was in bed when he learned of the arrest — he's on the same page.

"What he did to the the finances of the state during a very important time, to me was as bad as the crimes that he was convicted of," Durkin says.

You see, Blagojevich loved announcing expensive new programs. But he never got around to properly funding them.

I bounced the idea off Durkin:

Mackey: "You know it's one thing if you don't want to raise taxes, but then you should cut spending to match what your revenue is. And if you want to expand programs, then you need to maybe raise revenue to fund it. And he just didn't do ..."

Durkin: "He didn't do either."

Mackey: "Exactly."

Durkin: "He talked about, 'I balanced the budget. I balanced the budget.' What they did is balanced the budget by skipping pension payments. I mean, this is where it started."

All that left Illinois in a weak position when the Great Recession hit. And in many ways we're still struggling to get out from under some of those bad decisions. At least that's my view.

State Sen. Don Harmon.

Photo Credit: Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

"I wish we could blame the state's fiscal woes on a character like Blagojevich; I don't think that's necessarily fair," says state Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park.

To be clear, Harmon says he was no friend of Blagojevich — he thinks it was his bill banning campaign contributions from state contractors that led to the governor's scramble for cash at the end of 2008.

Nevertheless, Harmon says Blagojevich inherited a financial mess — and then let politics get in the way of solving it.

"As I understand it, Gov. (George) Ryan offered to shepherd through a tax increase before leaving office," he says. "That would have changed the Blagojevich administration dramatically, if we had had the revenues to tackle some of these problems."

That's in keeping with what Harmon sees as one of Blagojevich's key failures: he politicized absolutely everything.

"He didn't make decisions based on good public policy. He made them based on politics," Harmon says. "You can accuse people around this building of that sort of decision making all the time, but he took it to a different level."

Forget talk of bipartisanship — Blagojevich never figured out how to work with people on his own side.

And as Illinois returns to one-party Democratic rule next year, the importance of building those relationships is something it could pay to remember.

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.