Friday, January 2, 2009

Oh what a year...Illinois politics

Looking back at Illinois politics 2008,
Predominantly partisan, rarely pretty

Politically speaking, 2008 was a year to remember.

It began and ended with anticipation of replacing an unpopular president as well as a long-serving congressman who retired under a cloud of ethical questions. With primary contests in February, and a general election in November, local, state, and federal candidates geared up early for an exciting election season.

WILL COUNTY POLITICS

Will County Republicans named a new party chairman in March. Richard Kavanagh took over for GOP Chairman Jack Partelow who stepped down after serving 12 years. Partelow had, weeks before been arrested, for driving under the influence.

The first hint of a partisan political battle in Will County began taking shape in March when the GOP began to look at how death investigations are conducted. A probe was sparked by questions surrounding the death of Kathleen Savio, the fourth wife of ex-Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson. Savio's death was initially ruled accidental but further investigation, including exhumation of her body, changed the cause of death to homicide.

Some county board members considered doing away with the Coroner's office, long held by Democrat Patrick O'Neil. They considered hiring a Medical Examiner instead, which was strongly supported by O'Neil's Republican opponent Chuck Lyons, former deputy coroner in O'Neil's office. The proposal was later dropped. O'Neil handily won re-election in November.

In April Will County Executive Larry Walsh was arrested for DUI. His opponent Dan Kennison called for Walsh to step down. Walsh refused. When he had his day in court, he pleaded guilty and paid a fine.

Kennison also had a part in an FBI probe into Walsh's office in October. Questions surrounded Walsh's campaign contributions from the Smith family and their relatives in the Washington D.C. law firm Smith, Dawson, and Andrews. Walsh hired the firm as lobbyists in 2006. His Chief of Staff Matt Ryan was also implicated, by claims he had worked for the firm. He denied ever receiving a paycheck from the firm.

The FBI was apparently called by Auditor Steve Weber.

The story was initially picked up by the national press because Walsh had once served with Barack Obama in the Illinois Senate. The two played poker together. If Republicans envisioned a scandal for Obama, it never materialized.

It failed to connect with Will County voters as well, since Walsh won handily. And Weber was one of two Republicans who lost the election giving the Democrats a sweep of Will County offices.

Democrats did well in November. Even the 27 to 7 county board majority was affected. With the addition of four new county board Democrats, the Republican majority was reduced to 16 to 11.

11th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

By January, campaigning for the congressional seat held by Jerry Weller, R-Morris had already commenced. Like other states who wanted an early say in the presidential contest, the Illinois primary was moved up - from the first Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in February.

Three Republican candidates - Tim Baldermann, New Lenox; Jimmy Lee, Utica; and Terry Heenan, New Lenox, were in contention.

Because of Green Party Candidate Rich Whitney's double digit showing in the previous gubernatorial race, Illinois law allowed the Green Party to be included on the November ballot. Jason Wallace, Normal ran on the Green ticket.

Plenty of interest was sparked by both parties at the mention of Weller stepping down. But, like the proverbial parting of the seas, all Democrats stepped back when Debbie Halvorson made her decision to run for the seat. She was unsure until after a meeting in Washington, D.C. with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and accompanying promises of funding.

February brought the primary and a huge surprise for Republicans. Baldermann, won the race, but then days later dropped out. Republicans, who had been fairly confident of holding on to the congressional seat suddenly found themselves without a candidate.

A long two months later, in April a new GOP candidate was introduced. Concrete magnate Marty Ozinga was chosen to face Halvorson and Wallace in the November election.

By August, the sniping between Halvorson and Ozinga had reached a fevered pitch. She accused him of being out of touch. He accused her of being a Springfield insider. After all, she was the Senate Majority Leader. Both accused each other of having close ties to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was rapidly becoming public enemy number one in Illinois. Blagojevich was being accused of obstructing progress in the state, being unreasonable, and having few friends on either side of the aisle.

In November, Halvorson won handily.

Democrats increased their majority in both the House and the Senate as well.

Halvorson's election will leave a vacancy in the state senate. Party chairmen in 40th Senate district will be charged with choosing her replacement. As of this writing, she has not yet resigned her senate seat. She will resign before her swearing-in Jan. 6, however. In the running for her replacement, are John Anderson, Monee; Toi Hutchison, Chicago Heights; and John Pavich, Beecher.

ILLINOIS POLITICS

Things began to heat up in the state house in Springfield in May.

Halvorson, who had been accused of covering for Blagojevich and making Senate President Emil Jones' agenda her agenda, as she proclaimed prior to her running for congress, began distancing herself from the two. Her payback was to get bumped from the rules committee leadership.

By mid-year, the campaign season, was in full swing. Because Barack Obama was in contention for the White House, Illinois was deeply involved in the local and national elections.

In June, the Peotone airport proposal began to enter the fray.

That was when Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. began to accuse Halvorson of cavorting with criminals.

Jackson said SB2063 that Halvorson sponsored and pushed through the Illinois Senate creating the South Suburban Airport Authority Act, contained elements of a "pay-to-play" plan hatched by convicted felon Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a chief fundraiser for Blagojevich.

Jackson's charge was first made in a letter to the editor in a Village of Park Forest online newsletter. It was written by Jackson aide Rick Bryant. The letter and the allegations soon found their way into Halvorson's opponent's hands. The Illinois issue gained a national focus.

Bryant claimed that two years ago Jackson met with Rezko, who proposed an airport authority board with "pay-to-play" tactics, but that Jackson rejected it.

He wrote that Rezko stood in for Blagojevich at the meeting Jackson was supposed to have with the governor. Jackson said Rezko offered gubernatorial support if the governor was allowed to make key appointments to ALNAC’s board. Bryant's letter categorized that as Rezko trying to turn ALNAC into a state panel controlled by unaccountable "pay-to-play" ringleaders.

Halvorson’s response was that not only was she not directed by Rezko, but she has never even met him.

In August, Jackson was clearly moved by the Democratic National Convention that produced the first African American nomination for U.S. President.

Moved to tears, while at a breakfast of the Illinois delegation, Jackson initiated what has since been referred to as hug fest. He hugged Halvorson, Blagojevich, and longtime rival Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, all with whom he has had his differences through the years. But, all the feuding among Democrats melted away with an affectionate embrace as the Illinois Democrats celebrated their unity. Jackson even encouraged longtime adversaries Blagojevich and Speaker Michael Madigan, who are more likely to clinch fists than bodies, to partake in a hug.

December brought an early morning arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald held a news conference to explain that Blagojevich was taken into custody Dec. 9 at his north side home. Blagojevich's Chief of Staff John Harris was also arrested. He has since resigned from his job.

The charges outlined in a 76-page criminal complaint cite instances where Blagojevich allegedly tried to shake down campaign contributions in return for state jobs and contracts.

Also as part of the complaint, Blagojevich, who by law had sole authority to appoint a replacement to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Obama, allegedly tried to sell it to the highest bidder.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., who has campaigned vigorously for the seat, was implicated in the FBI affidavit that accompanied the Blagojevich complaint.

Jackson has claimed innocence of any wrongdoing. He has even claimed he has been an informant - contacting federal authorities - about Blagojevich in the past.

Following Blagojevich's arrest, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan held a press conference of her own. She asked the Illinois Supreme Court to declare Blagojevich unfit to hold his office. The court refused.

Blagojevich has claimed he will fight because he has done nothing wrong. He is continuing business as usual, despite calls for his resignation.

To prove his point, he appointed Roland Burris, former Illinois Attorney General, to fill the senate seat.

Burris, who once ran unsuccessfully for governor and many other state offices, is calling himself the Junior Senator from Illinois. Senate Democrats who have told Blagojevich they will not approve any appointment he makes because it is tainted, have vowed to block Burris' appointment.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has refused to certify Burris' appointment.

In the Illinois Senate, hearings are underway to impeach Blagojevich.

AN ILLINOIS PRESIDENT

A discussion of Illinois politics in 2008 has to include the Presidential race. Illinois had little to say after the vote in February, when voters gave their nod to the U.S. Senator from Illinois, but they had a stake in seeing it through to the end. Barack Obama is from Illinois.

It wasn't long into the year that it became clear that this would be a Democratic year. Republicans were taking a hit. President George W. Bush's low approval rating brought dyer predictions for the fall election.
As primary after primary after caucus was held across the country, all eyes were focused on Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as well as John McCain.

The Democratic moment came prior to the convention. Obama edged out Hillary Clinton, who fought hard for the nomination.

The Republican convention brought rock star status to McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

But it appears that as quickly as Palin's star rose, it also fell just as quickly. Her television interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson and later with CBS's Katie Couric put questions in the minds of the political pundits who just weeks prior had sung her praises.

Palin was later said to have been the downfall of John McCain's bid for the White House.

EX-GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

Following his 2006 conviction on multiple counts of racketeering, conspiracy, mail fraud, obstruction of justice, money laundering, and tax violations, lawyers for ex-governor George Ryan continued their effort to gain Ryan's freedom. He had begun serving his 6 1/2 year sentence in November, 2007.

In February 2008, a petition was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn Ryan's conviction.

In March, Ryan was moved from a Wisconsin prison to the Terre Haute Federal Institution at Terre Haute, Ind.

In April Solicitor General Paul Clement filed a brief telling the U.S. Supreme Court that it should refuse to hear Ryan's appeal.

May brought the official rejection of Ryan's appeal by the high court.

His last hope for freedom lay with President Bush. Sen. Dick Durbin even called for Ryan's sentence to be commuted. Durbin said Ryan was in ill health and his incarceration was very difficult on his family.
Ryan issued an apology for his crimes.

 Bush has signed some commutations and pardons, but Ryan's was not among them.





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