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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008 09:58 pm

Hug, shrug

Public display of affection between Blago and Madigan meant nothing

Gov. Rod Blagojevich showed up late to the Democrats' national convention in Denver. Most folks arrived before Monday's official kickoff, but Blagojevich waited until Tuesday, just in time to attend a reception and then a Wednesday morning breakfast sponsored by organized labor.

You all know what happened next. At the Tuesday evening reception, Blagojevich and his lifelong nemesis House Speaker Michael Madigan held a long sidebar about how they haven't talked in months, and they agreed to talk some more. Sen. Hillary Clinton's call for party unity earlier that evening had apparently sunk in.

But the following morning's labor breakfast brought seemingly stunning developments. At the urging of Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., Madigan and Blagojevich hugged — and it looked almost, well, genuine. The two enemies who had locked each other in a death vise for months were smiling, patting each other on the back, while the stunned partisan crowd roared its approval with an extended standing ovation.

Party elders and labor union leaders were hopeful that the supposed new era of good feelings meant that the odious Denver Boot that Blagojevich and Madigan had locked onto all four wheels of state government years ago would finally be removed by the magic of Denver's rarefied air. Might a way finally be found to implement the perennially-stalled multibillion dollar infrastructure program, and patch the horrific state deficit, and resolve education funding reform, and provide universal health insurance?

Maybe not.

"It's all theater," confided one top Blagojevich aide later in the day. A Madigan lieutenant pointed out that Madigan was the one who walked over to Blagojevich and had to practically pry the governor out of his seat.

But could it be that the aides de camp hadn't gotten the message? That very evening, Madigan and Blagojevich continued their détente by sitting next to each other at the convention. Perhaps it would just take a while before their top soldiers could be demobilized and reprogrammed.

Or not.

Blagojevich, Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones had promised Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago) that they would sit down and discuss Meeks' idea to avoid a threatened student boycott of the Chicago Public Schools. Meeks was proposing a $120 million plan to reform the state's worst public schools. He flew out to Denver to set up the confab, then waited for the governor to agree to a meeting time. Madigan had said he was willing to meet whenever the governor was ready, so it all depended on Blagojevich.

The call never came.

The governor, it turns out, had flown back to Chicago to announce huge state budget cuts Thursday morning, including the layoffs of hundreds of state workers and the closures of several state parks.

All of a sudden it seemed to many like everything had been some sort of cynical ploy.

There was no inkling that the same governor who seemed so pleased with the new political thaw was secretly sharpening his meat ax. He had no time to meet with Meeks for a few minutes, but had plenty of time to fly back to Chicago to lay off downstate workers.

If Illinoisans listened carefully, they could almost hear the bile boiling over all the way from Denver.

By the end of the week the only truly happy people were the House Republicans. They've been closely allied with Blagojevich on the stalled infrastructure proposal, but have been simultaneously searching for ways to tie Madigan and his Democratic House candidates to the horribly unpopular governor, in order to gain some political advantage this November.

The "hug" photos were all they needed.

Gloated one House GOP operative last week: "Coming to a mailbox near you!"


Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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