Ill. Senate Removes Blagojevich
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
For the first time in two decades - and only the second time in 80 years - a state legislature kicked a governor out of office Thursday, as the Illinois Senate concluded impeachment proceedings against Rod Blagojevich (D) with a 59-0 vote to remove him.
The vote means Blagojevich became the eighth governor to be removed after impeachment and the 23rd governor in U.S. history to leave office early under a cloud of scandal. He is also the fifth of the last eight Illinois governors to be charged with a crime (although one, William Stratton, was later acquitted).
Blagojevich's lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, took the oath of office quickly following the vote, capping a politically rancorous few months since the election of Illinois' U.S. senator as the nation's first black president, a little more than four years after Barack Obama left the state Senate.
One of the accusations that led to the impeachment proceedings was that Blagojevich tried to sell Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat for personal gain. The outgoing governor gave a forceful 47-minute speech denying that he abused his power, as alleged by the House impeachment article.
"I want to apologize to you for what happened, but I can't because I didn't do anything wrong," he said.
But his words failed to sway the senators, who lined up one by one, Democrat and Republican, arguing that Blagojevich should be convicted.
"This man is, without a doubt, unfit to govern," said state Sen. Dan Cronin, a Republican.
"It's not complicated folks. All the evidence is overwhelming," said state Sen. Kwame Raoul, the Democrat who succeeded Obama in the chamber.
Blagojevich's exit is all the more striking because he, as a gubernatorial candidate in 2002, promised to end the type of influence-peddling in Illinois government that he now stands accused of. Blagojevich and his administration have been under the cloud of criminal investigations almost since he first won office in 2002.
The governor regularly butted heads with fellow Democrats who control the General Assembly, and many of his top confidantes and fundraisers ended up in federal court facing corruption charges.
His downfall accelerated when federal agents arrested him in the early morning hours of Dec. 9. FBI agents came to his house and took him into custody to stop what U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald described as a "political corruption crime spree."
Federal prosecutors allege that Blagojevich tried to bargain for favors - such as a plum job for himself or his wife or a promise of campaign cash - in exchange for an appointment to U.S. Senate seat vacated after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency.
Law enforcement officials also accused the governor of trying to extort the Chicago Tribune and threatening to revoke a Medicaid rate increases for a children's hospital if the hospital's chief executive didn't raise campaign funds for Blagojevich.
Quinn, a populist Democrat who served one term as state treasurer in the early 1990s, served as Blagojevich's lieutenant governor, but the two men were not close. In an interview on Meet the Press, Quinn said he hadn't talked with Blagojevich since August 2007.
In Illinois, the lieutenant governor and governor run separately in the primary but together in the general election. The last U.S. governor to be impeached and removed was Evan Mecham of Arizona in 1988. He was accused of using state inauguration funds to prop up his auto dealership. Before Mecham, it had been 59 years since another governor was removed by impeachment. Blagojevich became the 11th governor tainted by scandal who left office before the end of their terms after being impeached or legally removed.
Blagojevich's ethical problems put Illinois in an unflattering light soon after Obama's election. More worrisome for state lawmakers is the state's dire fiscal situation. State Comptroller Dan Hynes (D) has warned the state has $4 billion in unpaid bills, and that amount could top $5 billion by next year.
Blagojevich's ongoing feud with the legislature is partly to blame for the cash crunch. This spring, legislators approved a budget that had, according to Blagojevich, a $2 billion hole in it. The governor made some cuts, laying off workers and shuttering state parks and historical sites, but didn't close the gap. The state is required by law to balance its budget.
In both of his gubernatorial campaigns, Blagojevich vowed not to raise the state sales or income tax. That has left him with few attractive options for closing chronic budget deficits. A plan to lease the state's downtown office building never got off the ground, the auction of a dormant casino license materialized only after Blagojevich's arrest and lawmakers rejected his effort to privatize the Illinois Lottery.
Early in his tenure, Blagojevich tried to make a name for himself promoting several health care initiatives. His signature effort, All Kids , combined several government programs to guarantee that any child in Illinois (including undocumented immigrants) could get affordable health insurance.
He launched a multi-state effort to import prescription drugs from Canada and other countries. He ordered the state to buy flu vaccines to try to relieve a flu shot shortage in the United States, but the federal government would not let Illinois import the vaccines.
The impeachment article written by the Illinois House cited both initiatives as examples of the governor's alleged abuse of authority.
Quinn, the man who succeeds Blagojevich, is best known as a consumer advocate.
He helped create the Citizens Utility Board , an advocacy group for consumers, in 1983. He was also the chief proponent of a successful measure to reduce the size of the Illinois House by a third the year before. Although sold as a move to save taxpayer money, the so-called Cutback Amendment helped House caucus leaders consolidate power.
As lieutenant governor, Quinn backed another amendment to the state Constitution to let voters recall public officials, a measure directed at Blagojevich. When that legislation failed, he urged voters to call a constitutional convention , but they rejected that idea in November.
Quinn has also actively backed a variety of measures to help military families. In November, he traveled to Poland to present a Purple Heart to the mother of a fallen Illinois marine. By filling out Blagojevich's term, which expires in 2011, Quinn joins a small group of lieutenant governors to be promoted because of their predecessors' troubles. The last one was New York Gov. David Paterson (D), who assumed office in March after Eliot Spitzer was caught up in a prostitution scandal.
Former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee served out the final two years of Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker's term after his conviction in 1996 for two felony charges relating to the Whitewater investigation into real-estate deals by Bill and Hillary Clinton. Huckabee then was re-elected to two additional full terms.
See Related stories:
Spitzer, 22nd disgraced gov to leave office (3/13/2008)
Democrats dysfunction hobbles Illinois (9/17/2007)
New scandal clouds Illinois politics (9/27/2005)
Rowland dodges impeachment, not disgrace (6/22/2004)
Mushrooming scandal overhangs Illinois politics (4/12/2002)