Rod Reeling

Bashing the legislature is one way to get elected governor. It's a lousy way to govern.
by | September 2007

It's hard to think of a contemporary state official who has misplayed a winning hand as badly as Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Swept into office in 2002, Blagojevich brought with him Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature for the first time in three decades. The result has been heated acrimony and severe governmental dysfunction.

Blagojevich ran by railing against a "culture of corruption" and chose not to let up after taking office. During his first year, he characterized legislators as "drunken sailors" unable to curb their free-spending habits. He seemed surprised that they took offense but kept up the heat. For more than four years, he has acted in the belief that he can generate momentum toward change through public relations campaigns, rather than by cultivating legislative leaders, or even fully briefing them about his plans.

The governor swung for the fences after winning reelection last year, calling for universal health coverage. Blagojevich refused to raise broad-based taxes to pay for his program--or to do much about the state's preexisting structural deficits. Instead, he proposed a gross- receipts tax on businesses. The Illinois House rejected the idea unanimously, but Blajojevich did not concede defeat, leading to a budget stalemate that ran on through the summer. "He's consistently overplayed his hand in terms of what he's wanted to do," says Kent Redfield, a University of Illinois at Springfield political scientist. "There just hasn't been that set of advisers who could tell the boss he's wrong without worrying about losing their jobs."

Legislators continue to find Blagojevich's holier-than-thou attitude hard to take, especially in light of a long-running FBI investigation into his administration's hiring practices and influence peddling. This year, a few legislators have gone over the edge, publicly calling the governor "insane" or calling for his impeachment. House Speaker Michael Madigan, a fellow Democrat, has refused even to consider most of the governor's programs, leading Blagojevich to respond with a new round of name calling on his own part.

Despite the fact that Democrats are in full control of the machinery of government, Springfield has devolved into an unproductive war of words worse than anyone can remember even in a famously fractious capital. The question now is whether Blagojevich and the legislature can learn to get along well enough to make something--anything--out of his remaining time in office.

"He is the most unpredictable governor I've seen in the 40 years that I've been monitoring the statehouse," says Mike Lawrence, head of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. "If he continues in his current style, I think we can see these kinds of difficulties for the next three years."