As a candidate in 2002, then U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich criticised his primary election opponent Paul Vallas for using "chauffer-driven limosines" in his job as CEO of the Chicago School District.
These days, the governor travels with his own large entourage, including on trips to the East and West coasts, while logging thousands of dollars in air travel miles commuting by state aircraft between Chicago and Springfield.
This political column by Bernard Schoenburg also includes items on comments by the editor of Governing magazine about Illinois politics, a poll of Illinois residents' knowledge of state government and Illinois support for Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson.
I’ve long-since stopped being surprised that Gov. Rod Blagojevich acts differently in office than he said he would during his 2002 campaign. It’s clear that he is the type who will say whatever sounds good at the moment, and sometimes immediately forget about it.
But just how far that trend can go is still a matter of some amazement.
Blagojevich’s often-daily round-trip flights on state airplanes from his home base of Chicago to Springfield, for example, which cost the state an estimated $5,800 on each of those days, show just how different he is than what he claimed to be.
I’ve estimated, based on per-mile numbers in an auditor general’s report, that flights that Blagojevich has taken on twin-engine state planes from Chicago to Springfield in just more than three months this spring cost the state about $100,000, including the empty flights the planes take to pick him up and then to return to Springfield after dropping him back in his home city. An Associated Press analysis of state records for a slightly different period put the cost at more than $5,800 per day and $76,000 and climbing for the spring.
Just like when it was disclosed in 2004 that he had six state cars driven to the Democratic National Convention city of Boston that year, and six cars also were dispatched to California for a wedding and fund-raising trip – each time with 10 or a dozen state troopers assigned to watch him and his family – I am reminded of his visit to the AFL-CIO headquarters in Springfield just before he won the 2002 Democratic primary.
One of his campaign attacks against primary rival Paul Vallas was that the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools had used “chauffeur-driven limousines” in that education job. At the time, a spokesman for Vallas had said there were six sedans for top administrators of the district of nearly 600 schools, and Vallas reluctantly accepted the service at the request of Chicago police because he was often working long hours in blighted neighborhoods.
So I asked Blagojevich — then a member of Congress and a former state representative — if he would use a state police driver when governor.
“I don’t know,” he said then. “Do you get one? I never even thought about that.”
“I hope not,” he added about having a driver. “I’d like to be my own person.”
Asked if that meant he would drive himself around as governor, he said, “Well I don’t know about that. I might have a staffer drive me, right? I don’t know. We’re speculating.”
Well, the speculation is over. This governor seems to know no bounds when it comes to using state resources to meet his own desires.
As for Vallas, well, he’s gone on to do good things. July would have marked five years running the school system in Philadelphia, where he oversaw more than 300 schools, including charter schools. But he has now taken a new job, which officially starts this week, and he said he has already been there for about three weeks.
“You know me,” he said. “I always kinda start early.”
Vallas is the new superintendent of the Recovery School District, based in New Orleans, which was formed by the state before Hurricane Katrina to take over low-performing schools. Since the hurricane, the purview of that district has expanded greatly, taking in many city schools that are reopening as damage is fixed and students return.
The Recovery District, by the fall, is expected to be running about 60 schools, including charter schools.
“I love assignments where I can have a positive impact on people,” Vallas said in a telephone interview.
Like many staff members there, he will serve in New Orleans without a contract, but says he will stay at least two years if wanted. His family has purchased a home back in Illinois, in Palos Heights, near parents of both he and his wife, Sharon. But that doesn’t mean he has political plans. The opposite is true, he said.
“I just paid off my campaign debt,” he said, and without outside help. Any talk of another run for something, he said, and “Mrs. Vallas would do serious damage to my ability to walk.”
“I’m re-establishing residency in Illinois because …that’s going to be our last house,” he said. “That’s where we’re going to live that that’s where where we’re going to retire. It’s as simple as that.”
Vallas’ father-in-law, Dean Koldenhoven, is former mayor of Palos Heights.
Vallas had nothing bad to say about Blagojevich. Asked about the governor’s travel, versus Blagojevich’s 2002 campaign talk, Vallas simply noted that he very rarely will get into an airplane himself.
“That wouldn’t have been a problem with me,” he said. “You know I hate to fly.”
Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Washington, D.C.-based Governing magazine, discussed the growing role of state governments last week at a forum on state government and citizen participation at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
The interesting talk was hampered just a bit by the fact that airline delays kept him from attending – but he talked by speaker phone and answered questions.
He believes that in areas such as immigration reform, the environment and health, states have actually been leading the policy path – with the federal government sometimes just following the lead.
Given that he studies state and local governments nationwide, I asked if there is a national persona of Blagojevich – given that the governor has often seemed to be seeking one.
“To be honest, he does not have an extremely high level of visibility at the national level, and that’s probably good for him right now,” Ehrenhalt said. “To the extent that he has a public image at the national level, it’s not a favorable one. I would have to say that.”
Among governors Ehrenhalt said are “doing interesting things and have been at the forefront of innovation” are Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; charlie crist of Florida; Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Chris Gregoire of Washington and Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania.
Of course, the level of knowledge about Blagojevich may have been raised in the last couple days, as the AP story about his Chicago-to-Springfield air commuting played in news outlets across the country and beyond.
The 135 people at the luncheon last week were also treated by Richard Schuldt, director of the survey research office of the Center for State Policy and Leadership at UIS, to results of a new survey on citizen views of state government. The office did extensive interviews with 465 people across the state from May 17-June 15.
“Overall, the public isn’t overly pleased with state government currently,” Schuldt said. “Three-quarters … said they trusted state government to do what is right only some of the time or hardly ever. Fifty-four percent think we’re going in the wrong direction. … About half think that state government takes their interests into account a lot or some, but almost as many say not much or not at all.”
When people were asked to name issues important to them, Schuldt said, most responses, about 23 percent, fell into the area of budget, taxes or spending, followed by education at 20 percent, cost of living and prices, 18 percent, and health-related issues, 16 percent.
Overall, he said, electricity prices were brought up by 8 percent, but in the sample of about 90 people from southern Illinois that percentage was a “phenomenal” 40 percent.
Among interesting findings: 69 percent of respondents knew that legislative sessions are in Springfield; 53 percent wrongly thought there are limits on state campaign contributions and 22 percent wrongly thought there are limits on state campaign spending; and 76 percent strongly or somewhat agree that potential candidates don’t run because of the amount of money they would need to raise to have a chance to win.
Three-quarters of respondents knew that a bill can become law even after a governor’s veto, while two-thirds knew that the House and Senate must pass the same version of legislation to make it law. Just 43 percent knew that it becomes harder to pass a state budget after May 31.
Of 10 names presented to respondents, 89 percent correctly identified Barack Obama as a U.S. Senator or presidential candidate – and that even topped a name thrown in as a benchmark – Anna Nicole Smith, who was correctly identified by 86 percent. Only 16 percent knew Michael Madigan was speaker of the House, though 32 percent in all knew he was a legislator or powerful person in Springfield. About 8 percent knew Emil Jones is Senate president, while 20 percent knew him with a broader definition.
Only 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively, knew that Senate GOP Leader Frank Watson and House GOP leader Tom Cross were legislators.
There is some hopeful news, Schuldt said. Asked if they would encourage a son or daughter in their 20s to pursue a career in state government, 70 percent said they would encourage it – up from 62 percent in a similar survey in 2003.
A slide presentation about the results can be viewed on the Web at http://cspl.uis.edu/SurveyResearchOffice/index.htm.
Three Republicans who told reporters in Springfield last week that they are hoping that actor and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., runs for president all said they think Thompson can best let the public in on the party’s message.
Former state Sen. Roger Keats, now of Wilmette, called Thompson a “master communicator” and “Reaganesque.” Also with him were Don “Doc” Adams of Springfield, chairman emeritus of the state GOP; and Champaign County Clerk Mark Sheldon.
They urged people who like Thompson to log onto www.imwithfred.com and join the list of supporters.
Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at 788-1540 or firstname.lastname@example.org.