While it is true that Governor Blagojevich beat his Republican opponent by 10 percentage points in 2006, he only won 50 percent of the total vote. A badly divided Republican party came out of a multi candidate primary with the worst possible candidate to exploit Blago's reputation for corruption.
State Treasurer Judy Barr Topinka was closely identified with convicted former Governor George Ryan, including his disdain for conservatives within his own party. She ran her office much the way Ryan had run his. For example, during a brief consulting job in the State Treasurer's office reviewing Build Illinois documents I saw solicitations for campaign contributions in amounts that would have been a financial stretch for some of her employees to make. Later during the Clinton impeachment process I listened to her slam Congressional Republicans at a Republican fundraiser in Chicago. According to Topinka that evening, voters simply don't care whether elected officials obey the law or not. All they cared about were jobs and taxes. Given that attitude, it is not surprising that she failed either to unite the Republican party or to capitalize on Blagojevich's reputation and low approval rating. Had I still been living in Illinois I probably would have taken a pass on the Governor's race or cast a write-in vote.
I would have loved to see the smile on the face of former Senator Peter Fitzgerald yesterday as the Blagojevich indictment story developed. In 2001 he specifically sought out Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) for the position of US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Senator Fitzgerald wanted a tough career prosecutor with no ties to the Illinois power structure willing to try and drain the Illinois political swamp instead of just trapping one or two of its more careless -and expendable - alligators. Too often the top US prosecutors job had gone to an Illinois native who either sought to cash in by becoming a partner at a large Chicago law firm or who was hoping for a career in elected politics. With such ambitions they tended to do just enough against corruption to gain a name for themselves while still leaving the basic system intact.
I suspect, however, that Senator Fitzgerald was even more tickled by the recent indictment of William Cellini, Sr. of Springfield Illinois, a long time player inside Republican politics. During the 1980s and 90s Cellini was involved in a great many projects like Build Illinois that wasted the taxpayers' money with boondoggles such as the Springfield Renaissance Hotel. Ironically, Cellini got indicted for raising money for Governor Blagojevich. I can understand how that happened despite Cellini's decades as the Treasurer of the Sangamon County Republican Party and Chairman of the Sangamon County Republican Foundation. (Springfield, the capitol of Illinois, is in Sangamon county.) I knew of some real estate partnerships Cellini was in. He would recommended certain parcels in rural areas be purchased. For maybe a dozen years or so the land was rented as farm land for enough to cover the carrying costs. Eventually a new exit for the tollway would be announced for the parcel immediately adjacent to that particular farm Cellini had recommended buying and the land would be resold at a huge profit to developers. As to why Cellini would work to elect Democrats after that party took power for the first time in 26 years, the least valuable parcels of land along a proposed entry ramp are the ones taken by eminent domain for the right of way itself. The deals I saw made little economic sense without insider clout. Decades of depending upon sweetheart deals and inside information do tend to dull one's ability to make money the honest way.
The state political establishment, Democrat and Republican alike, made sure that Senator Fitzgerald only served a single term by refusing to support any bid for his reelection. With the 2002 -2006 defeats of a great many of those Republican officeholders who had opposed him, the conviction of George Ryan and now the Cellini indictment, Senator Fitzgerald is finally having the last laugh.
I have long believed that Cellini's brand of politics greatly contributed to the decline of the Illinois Republican party. I know that by the time I left Illinois in 2003 I was fed up with most of the state's Republicans. It seemed to me that their acceptance of corruption had not only turned off many voters, it also discouraged a lot of people who would have made good Republican candidates from getting involved in the first place. Illinois has a March primary with applications and nominating petitions due in December, 2009. That means that in Illinois the 2010 election will begin in earnest in only a couple of months as the parties try to line up candidates. It will be interesting to see what new faces come forward on the Republican side in the aftermath of these indictments.