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Thursday, June 9, 2005 06:32 pm

The coming storm

The Chicago media declared Gov. Rod Blagojevich a winner after the spring legislative session ended last week. Adjourning the session by May 31 and, for a change, getting along with other Democrats, upholding his promise not to raise taxes, and coming up with lots of new programs and comprehensive medical-malpractice reform made him look pretty good in many eyes.

“Blagojevich and top Democrats managed to end the spring legislative session on time and on a surprising high note,” reported the Sun-Times.

“As he shook hands and gave thumbs-up signals among Democratic senators, Blagojevich’s smiling demeanor was a far cry from only a few weeks earlier, when, battered by criticism of cronyism and mismanagement, he retreated from public view, his poll numbers sagging,” the Tribune noted.

After the session ended, the governor held press conferences in several parts of the state to play up his new budget’s increased funding for early childhood education. He apparently wants to take full advantage while his window of opportunity is still open.

That’s good politics for the short term, but many problems lie ahead.

Just about every major-media reporter I know is working on at least one big story about alleged corruption or shady practices in the Blagojevich administration. Not all of these investigations will bear fruit, of course, but we can expect plenty of negative reports in the days and weeks ahead. His window could close soon as reporters dig into the shenanigans at the Department of Central Management Services, the state lottery, and hiring practices all over the place.

And then there’s the Cook County grand jury, which was announced shortly after the governor’s father-in-law, Ald. Dick Mell of Chicago, accused Blagojevich and one of his pals of trading appointments for campaign contributions. Mell recanted under the threat of a lawsuit, but the grand jury went ahead anyway.

Both of the people who are leading the grand-jury investigation into alleged administration corruption have gubernatorial ambitions. Attorney General Lisa Madigan doesn’t want to run for governor next year, but Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine is giving it some thought.

Devine is not a great candidate, but he wouldn’t admit it if you asked him. He was elected to his first term, in 1996, almost solely because of the Democrats’ hugely successful “Punch 10” straight-ticket-voting campaign. Democrats spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the campaign, which restored the Illinois House to a Democratic majority and vaulted no-chance candidates such as Devine into the winner’s circle. To twist an old saying, Devine was born, politically, on second base but thinks he hit a double.

Devine’s innate political skills alone aren’t a real threat to Blagojevich, but his grand jury most certainly is. Far be it from me to ascribe political intentions to any Cook County prosecutor, but what better motivation could there be to come up with high-level indictments if a person could use those potential perp walks to kick off a bright, shiny new gubernatorial campaign? Devine should be pinned down on his political intentions: If he plans to run statewide, he probably shouldn’t be investigating the governor.

If the governor’s folks don’t sideline Devine, we could be looking at Jim Thompson redux. Thompson, you may remember, was a federal prosecutor who jailed a former Democratic governor (Otto Kerner Jr.) and used that to catapult himself into the governor’s mansion in 1976. Then again, if Devine loses the November election, we’d have a Dan Walker/Mike Howlett/Jim Thompson redux. Walker was the incumbent Democrat who lost the 1972 primary to Mike Howlett, who then lost the general to Jim Thompson.

History never repeats itself exactly, but things are starting to look mighty familiar these days.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here: The governor may be starting to turn a corner. But what went down in the first two years of his administration may ultimately undo whatever cosmetic changes he makes now.

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