Imprisoned ex-governor's brother blames voters for state's fiscal, political woes
The brother of former governor and imprisoned convicted felon Rod Blagojevich said he knows who is to blame for Illinois' troubles and political culture.
"I blame the voters," Rob Blagojevich, the former governor's older brother, said during a recent interview on Illinois Rising, a presentation of the Illinois Policy Institute. "A lot of what I mean by that is there is a lot of self-interest wrapped up in this culture."
House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and the state's machine politics are only symptoms of that culture, Rob Blagojevich said.
"If you're in a Democratic district that Madigan has control over, you're going to work for that legislator because you're going to want to get any favors that might come from being in good graces with that person, whatever those services might be," Blagojevich said. "And if you're not in those good graces, then you're either going to be ignored or there's going to be some potential retribution of some sort, large or small."
The patronage system, which he saw firsthand growing up in Chicago, is ingrained in Illinois' political culture, said Blagojevich, who now lives in Nashville.
"Until people can transcend their own individual self-interest by voting for what's best for everybody, it's just not going to change, I don't think," Blagojevich said.
A large part of Rob Blagojevich's appearance on Illinois Rising was in support of his book, "Fundraiser A: My Fight for Freedom and Justice," released last year, which documents his time watching his brother's rise to governor and descent into prison, where the younger Blagojevich now resides. Rob Blagojevich's book also details the nightmare of his own legal troubles, related to his brother's, and how he ultimately became free of them.
Rob Blagojevich said people have asked him, during appearances related to his book, what he thinks of Madigan.
"My answer really was very succinct," Blagojevich said. "He's really the governor of this state. You may think you're electing governors here, but my assessment is that he's really the governor. I base that on the thirty-some years he's been speaker, the fact that he's a prolific fundraiser and is able to channel campaign funds to candidates in districts that will ultimately lead to positions in the state legislature. And that those people will be somewhat beholden to him on future votes."
Rob Blagojevich said he has had limited direct interaction with Madigan, with whom he co-chaired the former governor’s re-election campaign in 2006, but he noticed there was tension between the speaker and his brother, both Democrats.
"I know my brother was having problems with the speaker fairly well into his first term," Rob Blagojevich recalled. "And I said to him, fairly logically, I thought, 'Why don't you just go sit down with Madigan and talk to him?' And my brother's response was, 'You don't understand; you don't know anything here. That's just not going to work for me.' I found that to be an interesting observation."
Rob Blagojevich admitted that, on a political level, he admires Madigan.
"I marvel at his ability to stay in power and how he has manufactured a legislative process that he controls like a puppet master," Blagojevich said. "The guy worked out over three decades of manipulation and slow, plodding and planning to get to the position that he's in, so I've got to tip my hat to him. But do I think that's right, do I think that's best for the state or Illinois? No, I don't, but he was allowed to do that, and the people who allowed him to do that are the voters of Illinois. Until that awakening occurs, he's going to remain in power as long as he chooses to and do whatever he chooses to."
In addition to Illinois voters having a mass epiphany and voting for the good of the state, Rob Blagojevich said there also needs to be term limits at the state and federal level.
"Term limits for these legislators who make a living playing off a system that is juiced by our tax dollars and by large lobbying money," he said. "Until that happens, I don't think there will be any structural change in Illinois or anywhere in the country."
Rob Blagojevich also participated in the documentary "Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics," released earlier this month. The documentary was produced and written by Illinois Policy Action, an advocacy arm of the Illinois Policy Institute.
Rod Blagojevich, officially Illinois' governor from 2003 to 2009, was arrested in 2008 and convicted in 2011 for misusing his office on multiple charges, including attempts to sell the U.S. Senate seat that had been vacated by Barack Obama following his election to the presidency. This past August, a federal judge turned down Rod Blagojevich's request to reduce his 14-year prison sentence, which means he likely won't go free until May 2024.
Rob Blagojevich also faced federal indictments on a number of charges. In his book, Rob Blagojevich said federal legal eagles, shortly after his brother's arrest, strongly encouraged him to turn on his brother. Over 18 months, Rob Blagojevich fought the charges against him, liquidated his and his wife's IRAs and placed a second mortgage on their Nashville home to help raise $650,000 in legal fees, endured FBI wire tapping and experienced a jury deadlock on all four counts against him in August 2010. Later that same month, the government dropped all charges against him.
Before all that, Rob Blagojevich said he was very naive about what he had gotten into when he became involved with his brother's political career.
"I was naive to the political climate; I was naive to the legal climate," Rob Blagojevich said. "My book is a cautionary tale, really, for any citizen who gets involved in politics, to go in with their eyes wide open, because you just don't know where the political agenda may be coming from, whether it be local or federal. It’s the federal level that I worry most about because that's who attacked me, an innocent man, and turned my life upside down. I'm no longer that naive person. I'm a cynical, wary citizen who takes every opportunity to speak about what happened. Because it could happen to anybody if it happened to me."