The maneuvering began before Barack Obama was even elected president. A genuine political scramble was on as Illinois politicians great and not so great let it be known subtly and not so subtly that they wouldn’t say no if Governor Rod Blagojevich tapped them to fill out the unexpired portion of Obama’s term in the United States Senate.
There are so many issues and personalities involved in the decision-making process that the selection promises to be controversial no matter who is chosen. It would take the wisdom of Solomon to sort out the confusing, conflicting currents of race, faction, and family in order to arrive at a consensus so that the Democratic Party in Illinois doesn’t fly apart at the seams.
And smack dab in the middle of the maelstrom is the current governor, Milorad “Rod” R. Blagojevich, proud Serbian-American. He is also a man on the cusp of becoming the fourth Illinois governor out of the last seven to be indicted for corruption. He was mentioned prominently and not in the best light, during the trial of Obama friend, financier, and patron Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who was convicted of fraud in connection with a statehouse “pay to play” scheme. Federal prosecutors have leaked the information that they think they have enough on the governor for an indictment, largely — it is believed — because Rezko is singing to the feds in exchange for a lighter sentence. There is also a move among members of his own party in the Illinois House to impeach him. The governor is not only unpopular in the state, he is spectacularly and universally hated. A recent poll conducted by the Chicago Tribune found that just 13% of residents approved of the job he was doing.
In short, Governor Blagojevich might want to hurry the process of selecting Obama’s replacement along since he may not be sleeping in the governor’s mansion much longer. He claims he wants to settle the matter before Christmas. If so, he will probably be able to make that deadline — barely — before either resigning in disgrace or being kicked out by members of his own party.
If it were only Blagojevich who had input into the decision it would still be difficult, but at least the governor would avoid incoming fire from several factions with a huge interest in who will replace the new president in the Senate. And there is no interest group making more noise and demanding consideration than African Americans.
They’ve got a good case. Once Obama formally resigns from the Senate, that body will be left with no African Americans serving. There are two prominent African Americans in Illinois who may have the inside track as well as a few other blacks not as well known but who might be on Blagojevich’s short list .
One candidate, Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, who served as Mayor Daley’s staff chief and headed up the powerful Transit Board in Chicago, is a long time friend of both Michelle Obama (who she hired for the Mayor Daley’s staff years ago) and Barack. But she has apparently removed her name from consideration because as one of Obama’s top campaign aides, she is destined for the national stage, either in a prominent role in the White House or one of the departments. She is currently busy as co-chair of the Obama transition effort.
The other major African American contender is Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr., son of former presidential candidate Reverend Jesse Jackson and a power in Chicago politics. If Blagojevich wanted to open a can of worms, he could do no better than select the younger Jackson to replace Obama. It would tick off Mayor Daley, anger a rival faction of African Americans in the city, and worry many downstate Democrats who feel Jackson would be a millstone around their necks in 2010.
Jackson carries a lot of political baggage. He once disrespected Mayor Daley’s father, the former Mayor Richard M. Daley, very publicly. He has opposed Daley in his efforts to expand O’Hare airport, desiring that the government build a new airport in his district. He has also clashed with Governor Blagojevich on several issues and railed against the corruption of his administration. A congressman since 1995, Jackson ran an abortive campaign for mayor in 2006, smartly dropping out when the Democrats achieved a majority in the House of Representatives. It would have been an uphill fight to pull enough liberal white, African American, and Hispanic votes to beat Daley who is very popular with many minority groups, especially Hispanics.
Jackson wants to replace Obama badly. He was first out of the box, making it known in October that he would be “honored and humbled” to take Obama’s seat. He actually commissioned a Zogby poll showing him in the lead among all candidates who had been mentioned.
He is also very liberal — a fact not lost on downstate Democrats who have figured out how to run in previously Republican territory and believe that having Jackson at the top of the ticket in 2010 might very well set them back and allow the Republicans to retake control of one or both houses in the legislature.
Given all this, it appears that Jackson would only have an outside shot at being chosen. That leaves two potential candidates — one not very well known and another known all too well as one of the more colorful characters in Illinois politics.
At age 73, state Senate leader Emil Jones has had a long career as a Chicago Machine politician. Starting as a sewer inspector, Jones worked his way up the ranks and is now one of the most powerful politicians in the state. His own campaign kitty funds dozens of Democratic senators in their runs for office, making him a force not only on the Senate floor where he rules with an iron fist, but also in the corridors and cloakrooms where his legendary powers of persuasion are put to use in service to what some see as his own agenda.
Jones, who is retiring from the state Senate in 2010, has said he wouldn’t turn the job down. In fact, some observers believe he would make a perfect replacement for Obama. He almost certainly wouldn’t run for re-election, thus clearing the way for a battle royal among all the current crop of Senate hopefuls in a free for all primary in two years. African Americans would be happy. Daley would be happy. Obama might even like to see his former mentor get a nice reward at the end of his career. And Governor Blagojevich could breathe a sigh of relief — temporarily — as he would have avoided a bruising fight.
But Jones, as Roger Simon of Politico points out, has some major drawbacks:
He was one of Obama’s political patrons, is close to the governor and is an African-American, yet I got snorts of derision when I ran his name past some other Illinois sources of mine. That’s because Jones is from the old school — he started out as a sewer inspector, which is not bad training for a life in politics — and is not a modern, ready-for-TV candidate, possessing an orator’s tongue. He is a Chicago pol — the ring tone on his cell phone is the theme from The Godfather — but he would be a “place holder” only and would not run in 2010.
So Jones would appear to be out of contention. The other dark horse candidate from the African American community is Congressman Danny Davis. But Davis has many of the same problems that Jones has. He is 67, a former Chicago alderman, and while he is well spoken and knowledgeable, he may have too much baggage to be a good choice to run in 2010. He once accepted a trip to Sri Lanka paid for by the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group. He is also a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America. If downstaters thought they might have problems with Rep. Jackson in 2010, Davis might be their worst nightmare.
Other candidates include the lieutenant governor, longtime Democratic office holder Pat Quinn. However, Quinn may be busy moving into the governor’s mansion if Blagojevich is booted out or if he resigns. Then there’s Congressman Jan Schakowsky, a popular Democrat from Chicago’s near north side. If Blagojevich wants to choose a woman, she would be one option.
The other female option open to Blagojevich is one of the more compelling figures in Illinois politics. Tammy Duckworth is an Iraq War veteran who lost both her legs in combat and ran a spirited campaign in 2006 against Peter Roskam, who was vying to replace 16-term Congressman Henry Hyde. Although losing that race, the Asian-American won national attention both for her heroism and her anti-war advocacy.
Now serving as Blagojevich’s veterans affairs chief, Duckworth has made known her desire to be selected to be Obama’s replacement. And Obama himself may have sent a signal of who he might be favoring. When the president-elect laid a wreath at a soldier’s memorial in Chicago this past Veterans Day, at his side was Tammy Duckworth. Now it is true that Duckworth is head of veterans’ affairs for the state. But Obama didn’t have to have anyone by his side. The fact that he chose Duckworth may give us some sense of who he might wish to see in his Senate chair next January.
Duckworth also has a stellar list of supporters including Illinois’ other senator, Dick Durbin, who recruited her to run for Congress in 2006. Her campaign that year was managed by Rahm Emanuel, and she had David Axelrod as a media advisor.
A female war veteran, an up and coming star of the Democratic party in Illinois, a young (40), intense campaigner with a compelling personal story, a choice that would please the new president, and someone who could run very well downstate — Tammy Duckworth would seem to solve a lot of Governor Blagojevich’s headaches.
But this is Illinois. And if there is anything about politics in this state that is consistently true it is to expect the unexpected and take nothing for granted.