Sunday, November 02, 2008

A Tale Of Two Illinois Senators

There is Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois' current junior senator, and there is his predecessor, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. Obama rose quickly to power kowtowing to the Chicago political machine, advancing from the Illinois Senate to the U.S. Senate in 2004. Sen. Fitzgerald won an upset election over a corrupt Chicago politician, Sen. Carol Mosely Braun, with little help from his own political party. Like Obama, Fitzgerald came from the ranks of Illinois' state senate. But unlike Obama, he made his mark as an independent voice fighting the corrupt forces within his own political party. Fitzgerald won his election in 1998 using his own personal wealth to finance his campaign. Obama relied on the pay-to-play crowd to finance his Senate campaign. Fitzgerald was hounded out of politics after serving only one term by members of his own party because of his independent streak and determination to weed out corruption in Illinois government. Obama almost immediately began a campaign for president after winning his Senate seat in 2004 and now stands on the threshold of becoming president of these United States.

The key difference between Sen. Fitzgerald and Sen. Obama is that the latter always took the path of least resistance in pursuit of his political career, while the former never swayed from his core principles. Sen. Obama's go along to get along positioning has won him big support from Chicago power brokers like Gov. Rod Blagoyevich, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Cook County Board President Todd Stroger. Sen. Fitzgerald's independence earned him the wrath of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and GOP power broker William Cellini. Messrs. Ryan, Hastert and Cellini thought they had won a big victory when they drove Fitzgerald out of politics in 2004, but the lasting influence of Fitzgerald's efforts to clean up Illinois politics suggests he may be the one enjoying the last laugh.

When Sen. Fitzgerald became Illinois' unlikely junior senator in 1998, he understood that the key to breaking the stranglehold a corrupt combine of Democratic and Republican power brokers had over Illinois politics was to find an independent U.S. attorney to run the Justice Department's Chicago office who wouldn't shy away from taking on these establishment figures. Both parties have a long history of picking politically-connected U.S. attorneys in the Chicago office who turn a blind eye to public corruption. Clinton was president when Fitzgerald took office in 1998, but Bush's election in 2000 provided him a big opening. A scandal-plagued Gov. George Ryan did not seek re-election in 2000, leaving Fitzgerald as the person in line to recommend a U.S. attorney choice to the Bush administration. Former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, himself a former U.S. attorney, had a hand-picked choice ready at hand, but Fitzgerald wasn't having anything to do with any of the locals. He looked to a hard-charging outsider in Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) to do the job, much to the disappointment of the establishment. And boy did they have good reason to be disappointed.

Over the past eight years, Patrick Fitzgerald has left no stone overturned in the cesspool which runs Illinois politics. Fitzgerald wasted no time in prosecuting and convicting former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who is now doing time in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. During Ryan's long career as an Illinois House Speaker, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State and then Governor, he mastered the art of pay-to-play politics his Chicago political brethren had mastered long before him.

Fitzgerald also turned his attention to the head of the Chicago political machine, Mayor Richard M. Daley. Fitzgerald has tried and convicted dozens of members of Daley's administration for a pay-to-play scheme involving the hiring of trucking firms by the City of Chicago. When Chicago Alderman Dick Mell, the father-in-law of Gov. Rod Blagoyevich, blabbed that a seat on a state board of commission could be purchased at the right price, Fitzgerald sprung into action with his Operation Board Games investigation. That investigation has yielded several high-profile convictions, including political fixer Tony Rezko, the man who helped Sen. Obama purchase his south side mansion. A Blagoyevich indictment seems imminent by the ominous "Public Official A" designation which appears repeatedly in Fitzgerald's indictments against other corrupt pols. But the biggest shock wave in Illinois politics came just this last week when Fitzgerald announced the indictment of political power broker William Cellini. Those familiar with Cellini's power know too well that it was the equivalent of Rudy Giuliani's indictment and conviction of New York mob boss John Gotti. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass captured the reaction beautifully:

William Cellini, the boss hog of the Republican half of the bipartisan Illinois Combine that runs the state, has finally been indicted by a federal grand jury.

It's about time. For Illinois taxpayers, it's almost like Independence Day, but without the firecrackers and balloons.

Cellini, who made a fortune worth at least $100 million from his political connections in gaming, real estate, asphalt pouring and you name it, hasn't been convicted of anything, only charged in a federal indictment with mail fraud, extortion conspiracy to benefit Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, attempted extortion and soliciting a bribe through insider political control of state boards and commissions controlling billions of your tax dollars.

Kass caught up with former Sen. Fitzgerald to get his reaction to the indictment. "The Cellini indictment is obviously significant," the former senator told [Kass] Thursday in a phone interview from Virginia. "I've fought him for my entire career. And for nearly 40 years, Cellini has been calling the shots from behind the scenes in Springfield. He's gotten very rich off the taxpayers. Very rich." As Kass notes, though, it is much too soon to celebrate. Ironically, the presidential candidate promising change has every reason to shut down the investigations of Fitzgerald just as he's really on a roll. "There is no story more important to the people of Chicago and of Illinois than the future of Fitzgerald, who has systematically hunted down the corruption," Kass writes. An FBI agents tell Kass, "If we lose [Fitzgerald], we lose everything."

If Obama is elected president on Tuesday, there is no doubt in my mind that Peter Fitzgerald's dream of ending the corrupt Combine that runs Illinois politics at the hands of Patrick Fitzgerald will come to a crashing halt. Obama's good pal Tony Rezko is facing many years in prison for his corruption crimes. Sen. Obama has benefited personally from Rezko's actions, some of which were likely illegal. The last thing Obama will allow is Rezko spilling the beans on him. If you believe Chicago press reports, this is already happening with respect to Gov. Blagoyevich. Rezko complained months ago in a letter to the federal judge who presided over his trial that Fitzgerald's office was trying to get him to tell bad things about both Blagoyevich and Obama. And Blagoyevich is the first to remind reporters that Obama's ties to Rezko are just as significant as his.

So we have the tale of two Illinois senators. One who talked the talk and walked the walk. He has the battle scars to prove it. The other prances along, always trying to look his best, but always pleasing the only folks who really count--the corrupt political insiders who line their own pockets at your expense. And which of these two Illinois senators really represents change? I'll give you a hint. It's not the one on an election ballot this year.

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