Illinois governor ignores Obama’s call to resign
CHICAGO – His career in shreds, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich clung defiantly to power Wednesday, ignoring a call to step down from President-elect Barack Obama and a warning that Senate Democrats will not let him appoint a new senator from the state.
“Everyone is calling for his head,” said Barbara Flynn Currie, a leader in the Illinois Senate and, like the governor, a Democrat. One day after Blagojevich’s arrest, fellow Illinois politicians sought to avoid the taint of scandal-by-association.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. said at a news conference in Washington that he was Senate Candidate 5 in the government’s criminal complaint — a man Blagojevich was secretly recorded as saying might be willing to pay money to gain appointment to Obama’s vacant Senate seat. Jackson said he had been assured by prosecutors he was not a target of the investigation, and he emphatically said he had not engaged “whatsoever in any wrongdoing.”
Other Democrats in Washington edged away from calls for a special election to fill Obama’s place in the Senate, hoping that Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn would soon become governor and fill the vacancy on his own. That would assure the party of holding the seat, and on a far faster timetable than any balloting would allow. Ensconced in his downtown office, Blagojevich gave no sign he was contemplating resigning, and dispatched his spokeswoman, Kelley Quinn, to say it was “business as usual” in his 16th-floor suite, situated a few blocks from Obama’s transition headquarters.
“At the end of the day, the top priority for our office is to serve the people, and we have not lost sight of that, nor will we lose sight of that,” Quinn said. One day earlier, federal prosecutors released a thick document that included excerpts of wiretapped conversations in which the governor allegedly schemed to enrich himself by offering to sell Obama’s Senate seat for campaign cash or a lucrative job inside or outside government.
Blagojevich, whose 52nd birthday was Wednesday, is charged with conspiracy and solicitation to commit bribery, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and 10 years, respectively.
More than 24 hours after the arrest, Obama joined other prominent Democrats from his state in calling for Blagojevich’s resignation.
“The president-elect agrees with Lt. Gov. Quinn and many others that under the current circumstances it is difficult for the governor to effectively do his job and serve the people of Illinois,” Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Asked whether Obama supports a special election, Gibbs said Obama believes the Illinois General Assembly should consider how to fill the Senate seat and “put in place a process to select a new senator that will have the trust and confidence of the people of Illinois.”
Top Senate Democrats were more pointed in a letter circulated among the rank and file for signatures.
Blagojevich’s resignation, followed by an appointment made by a new governor, would “be the most expeditious way for a new senator to be chosen and seated in a manner that would earn the confidence of the people of Illinois and all Americans,” wrote Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and the party’s second-ranking leader, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois.
They added that if Blagojevich chose to “ignore the request of the Senate Democratic Caucus and make an appointment we would be forced to exercise our Constitutional authority … to determine whether such a person should be seated.”
The Constitution gives the Senate authority to refuse to allow a member to be sworn in.
Top Illinois lawmakers have said they are preparing to call the Legislature into session as early as next week to set a special election to choose Obama’s successor. Many officials said Blagojevich should be impeached if he refuses to leave.
Still, it was unclear what incentive the governor had to give up his office. His attorney said Tuesday that he is innocent, and a resignation might make him appear guilty. The office also gives him a certain amount of clout, which can help him raise money for his defense. And he may need the salary — federal prosecutors say their wiretaps also caught Blagojevich complaining about his financial problems.
“He appears to listen to no one, and his conduct becomes more outrageous as time goes on,” said Steve Brown, spokesman for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat.
Brown also said that no matter when lawmakers act, Blagojevich could sit on the legislation and still pick a senator. “Despite our best efforts, the governor could play hide the ball. That is an inescapable reality,” Brown said. “I’m hoping that’s not the case.”