Springfield State Journal Register

January 13, 2004

National exposure
Governor's moves turn political heads

By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - When Gov. Rod Blagojevich decided to unveil his plan to buy cheaper medicine from Canada for Illinois state employees, The Washington Post splashed the story across the front page.

His mid-September timing was perfect. He took the federal government head-on just as Congress was considering a prescription drug plan for Medicare recipients and seniors were up in arms.

Since then, the publicity the Democratic governor has received has snowballed into several months' worth of national exposure from The New York Times, USA Today and others, as well as numerous television appearances. His prominence on the prescription drug issue prompted Money magazine in its January issue to name Blagojevich one of 25 national leaders expected to have the most impact on individuals' financial lives in 2004.

The national exposure, particularly the way Blagojevich has leaked developments to newspapers outside the state, is fueling speculation the fledgling governor has his sights set on national office.

Blagojevich, for his part, denies it.

"My aspirations are to be the best possible governor I can possibly be and to do the best possible job I can for the people," he said in an interview with Copley Newspapers.

However, political observers say they're watching him as a possible future national contender. He's young, energetic, photogenic and a good fund-raiser, which makes up for an otherwise short political resume.

"There's no doubt in my mind or anybody else's mind in Washington that Rod Blagojevich took what he hopes will be only his first step up the political ladder with the governorship of Illinois," said Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

"I think that D.C. insider types are watching him with an eye toward 2008, 2012, whether it's for the top spot on the ticket or second spot or whatever. We're keeping half an eye on him," Rothenberg said. "But I don't think even political junkies in most of the country know who Rod Blagojevich is now."

For Blagojevich to have any national political future, analysts say the governor first has to deal with Illinois' fiscal problems. Several said he would do well to study the lesson learned by former California Gov. Gray Davis, who was ousted by California voters largely because of the state’s economic problems and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Gray Davis once thought of being president. Now, he’s merely a private citizen,” said one Democratic strategist, who asked that his name not be used. “It’s hard to have a national future if you don’t get re-elected or you get re-elected and you look like a failed governor.”

Meanwhile, Blagojevich continues to raise funds.

Of the $215,000 that Blagojevich raised in campaign funds in the first six months of 2003, $67,500, or 31 percent, came from out-of-state sources, according to his most recent report on file with the state. The single largest out-of-state contribution was $50,000 from S&B Surgery Group of Beverly Hills, Calif.

Fellow Democrats acknowledge Blagojevich has had a huge learning curve and more than the usual first-year difficulties.

“He has never served in an executive position before in government,” said U.S. Rep. William Lipinski, D-Chicago, noting Blagojevich has needed time to adapt from being a legislator to being the state’s chief executive.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says Blagojevich came into office facing “extraordinary challenges.” Blagojevich had difficulty finding experienced Democrats to fill leadership posts because it had been three decades since the last Democratic governor was elected and also because of a spate of state employee retirements, Durbin said.

But the state’s budget crisis remains his greatest challenge, Durbin said. His political future rides on the outcome.

“If the economy improves, he’ll be in a better position to try some new things for our state,” Durbin said. “Right now, he’s in a damage control situation, so that doesn’t give you much opportunity to show your best.”

Just when the state needs federal help the most, though, Blagojevich’s former congressional colleagues say the governor has yet to establish a strong presence in Washington.

One of his first moves as governor was to cut about $1 million in contracts with Washington lobbyists. The state’s Washington office has been reduced from a staff of 10 under former Gov. George Ryan to six. Blagojevich still hasn’t chosen a permanent director for the office. Acting Director Sol Ross has no prior Washington experience, although two former Lipinski aides are on the staff.

“I can’t think of any one person in the Washington office who represents the Illinois government,” Durbin said. “I wish they would approach that a little more differently. There is a need for more permanency in that office.”

But Blagojevich, who was a three-term U.S. representative before his election as governor, said he might make further cuts in staffing of the Washington office.

“We think it’s a way to save money for the taxpayers,” Blagojevich said of the reductions.

House members and senators “are hired by the people of Illinois to go lobby for the people of the state of Illinois. Why do we need to waste taxpayers’ money and have more people working in that Washington office?” he said.

Blagojevich said he speaks regularly to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville, and works closely with Lipinski, who is the senior Democrat on a key transportation subcommittee, as well as Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Chicago, and Mark Kirk, R-Wilmette.

The governor has been to Washington twice this past year, each time meeting with Hastert.

In May, he and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley made the annual presentation of the state’s wish list to the Illinois congressional delegation. In September, he came to promote his proposal to buy less-expensive drugs from Canada for state employees, which Hastert opposes.

“It was kind of a distraction from the very real problems that Illinois is facing,” said Hastert spokesman John Feehery.

Republican Rep. Ray LaHood of Peoria, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, complains he can’t get the governor to return his phone calls.

“I would think he’d be talking to more people on the Appropriations Committee, but maybe he thinks he can get it all done without us,” LaHood said.

Blagojevich has sent five state agency directors to Washington this past year to keep the state’s needs before the Illinois congressional delegation, an aide said.

“I hope that once this first terrible year is behind him, he’ll be able to develop an even closer relationship with the delegation,” Durbin said.

If Blagojevich does hope to use the governorship as a springboard to the presidency, there is strong historical precedent. Four of the last five presidents were governors - Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But the only sitting Illinois governor to win a major party’s presidential nomination was Adlai E. Stevenson in 1952. Stevenson lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and again in 1956.

Blagojevich’s Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill don’t rule it out.

“I think anyone that comes from the fifth largest state in the union as the chief executive and at the age that he is at, who has the enthusiasm and the optimism and the ambition that he certainly has, has to be considered for future presidential ambitions,” Lipinski said.

However, his record as governor is more important than anything he does on the national scene, political observers and colleagues say.

“My recommendation is to do his job and do it well and good things can happen,” Durbin said.

Political writer Bernard Schoenburg contributed to this report.

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