CHICAGO — Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich is a polished speaker who can win over elderly women at luncheons in southern Illinois with his earnest attention and eloquently recite historical anecdotes from the lives of the leaders he says he most admires — Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Robert F. Kennedy, Alexander Hamilton, Ronald Reagan.
And yet, Mr. Blagojevich, 52, rarely turns up for work at his official state office in Chicago, former employees say, is unapologetically late to almost everything, and can treat employees with disdain, cursing and erupting in fury for failings as mundane as neglecting to have at hand at all times his preferred black Paul Mitchell hairbrush. He calls the brush “the football,” an allusion to the “nuclear football,” or the bomb codes never to be out of reach of a president.
In 1996, John Fritchey, a Democrat who shared a campaign office with Mr. Blagojevich, was told that his stepfather had suffered a serious stroke. He walked over to Mr. Blagojevich, who was making fund-raising calls, and shared the news.
“He proceeded to tell me that he was sorry, and then, in the next breath, he asked me if I could talk to my family about contributing money to his campaign,” recalled Mr. Fritchey, now a state representative and a critic of the governor. “To do that, and in such a nonchalant manner, didn’t strike me as something a normal person would do.”
Yet even political figures like Mr. Fritchey say they were stunned by his arrest last week on charges of conspiracy and soliciting bribes.
Many who know the governor well say that as Mr. Blagojevich’s famed fund-raising capability seemed to have shrunk in recent months and as his legal bills mounted after years of federal investigation, he appeared to have evolved from what Mr. Fritchey considered callous into something closer to panicked or delusional.
“It’s hard to imagine what could have been going through his head for this to reach such a brazen point,” Mr. Fritchey said. “The irony is, had he simply delivered on the promises on which he campaigned rather than pursuing his belief that success would come through an abundance of fund-raising, his path might look like he wanted it to.”
Now, officials at all levels are calling for his resignation or impeachment. And the public image he had cultivated as an agent of change in Illinois has been subsumed by the stories about his conduct in private. Today, he barely has an ally in sight.
Long before this, he disagreed over a casino with Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago; he irked Michael Madigan, the powerful Democratic state speaker, over the budget; and he infuriated just about every legislator by staying put in Chicago (rather than moving his family to the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield). His penchant for promoting his headline-grabbing proposals — like those for universal preschool and cheaper drugs from Canada — on television, rather than in the quieter halls of Springfield, also won him no friends.
“Rod reveled in fighting with members of the General Assembly,” said Representative Tom Cross, the state Republican leader. “He came out of the box fighting: He was the populist, and we were the big, bad General Assembly. He didn’t seem interested in policy, the budget was in disarray, and he was never there.”
Neither Mr. Blagojevich’s spokesman nor his lawyer, who has said that Mr. Blagojevich feels that he is innocent of the charges against him, would consent to be interviewed.
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Whatever else may have come apart within Mr. Blagojevich in recent months, one quality, unabashed ambition, has been a constant, his colleagues and his critics say. Even with approval ratings that had sunk to 13 percent as details of the federal investigation into his administration had seeped out over the past three years, Mr. Blagojevich, incredulous prosecutors say, still spoke in his recorded conversations in the past six weeks of the possibility of remaking his political future and running for president, perhaps in 2016.
That aspiration was nothing new.
Video: Monday resignation? At points in early 2004, Mr. Blagojevich appeared with Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, at a community center in Evanston and a junior high school in Quincy. Mr. Blagojevich seemed confident, said two former employees, who refused to be named out of concern that their comments could jeopardize their current work, that he would soon be selected as Mr. Kerry’s running mate. (An aide to Mr. Kerry’s campaign says he was never under consideration.) At the time, there seemed only one problem: Mr. Blagojevich was uncertain he wanted to be a No. 2.
Mr. Blagojevich rose to power from unlikely roots. His father was a steelworker from Serbia and his mother collected tickets for the Chicago Transit Authority.
Mr. Blagojevich graduated from Northwestern University, and received his law degree from Pepperdine University, working to help pay for it.
Back in Chicago, he worked briefly as an assistant prosecutor under Mr. Daley, who was then the Cook County state’s attorney.
But Mr. Blagojevich’s political career may have been sealed the day he met his future wife, Patti Mell, at a fund-raiser in 1988 for her father, Richard Mell, a ward chief on the Northwest Side and a powerful alderman for more than three decades. Three years later, he was doing precinct work for Mr. Mell, and not long after, Mr. Mell suggested that he run for state representative — with the help of Mr. Mell’s vast ward operation.
Mr. Blagojevich spent four years in the State House, six years in the United States House of Representatives, and then, in 2002, he ran for governor.
The moment could not have been more welcoming for a Democrat. Gov. George Ryan, a Republican who was by then engulfed in a corruption scandal, did not run for re-election, and the Republican who did had a long record of public service but an unfortunate last name: Ryan.
Mr. Blagojevich focused his campaign on pledges of reform and clean government, and won. Once in office, even amid accusations of campaign donations being exchanged for state jobs, Mr. Blagojevich continued to promote himself as a lonely fighter against the gargantuan pressures of lobbyists and lawmakers — pressing for tougher ethics laws, appointing inspectors general and sending state employees to “ethics training.”
Before the cameras, Mr. Blagojevich was a cheery presence — the No. 1 Cubs fan, an Elvis buff, an avid runner who jogged through the annual twilight parade before the State Fair, darting back and forth to shake as many hands as he could find.
Behind the scenes, though, members of Mr. Blagojevich’s staff saw a different man: one who was deeply concerned about his appearance (particularly his signature black hair, which he ignored suggestions to change) and who usually worked from his home or his North Side campaign office and could often be seen, mid- or late-morning, making a six-mile run trailed by his security team.
“God forbid you make a mistake,” said one longtime former employee. In December 2003, the employee recalled, Mr. Blagojevich flew into a rage because he thought he was late for a holiday tree-lighting ceremony in Springfield, and his two young daughters — who were visiting with Santa Claus in the parlor of the Governor’s Mansion — did not have their shoes on yet. “You’re trying to sabotage my career!” the employee recalled Mr. Blagojevich screaming at staff members, as he charged into the parlor. “You’re the worst!”
At Christmastime in 2004, a nasty spat cropped up between Mr. Blagojevich and Mr. Mell and the fallout stretched well beyond the family, offering some of the clearest public hints of Mr. Blagojevich’s coming troubles.
Mr. Blagojevich shut down a landfill operated by a relative of Mr. Mell, saying it was taking types of waste it was not licensed to accept. Mr. Mell accused Mr. Blagojevich of shutting the facility as a personal vendetta against him, and then accused his top fund-raiser of trading appointments to state commissions and boards for campaign donations, just the image Mr. Blagojevich had been trying to avoid.
Though Mr. Mell (who is said to still be estranged from the Blagojevich family) later recanted his comments, state officials said they were investigating, and, in 2006, a letter between federal and state prosecutors became public, revealing that Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor, was already investigating claims of “endemic hiring fraud” in the Blagojevich administration.
Mr. Blagojevich said that he welcomed “each and every agency” that was seeking the truth. But, with the passing months, lawmakers and other colleagues said the pressure of the investigation seemed to weigh on the governor.
Knowledge of the investigation was widespread when Mr. Blagojevich ran for re-election in 2006, and he still won 50 percent of the vote. Some political experts thought Judy Baar Topinka, then the Republican state treasurer, was weak opposition to Mr. Blagojevich’s one-on-one charm. And Mr. Blagojevich spent $27 million, nearly three times what Ms. Topinka spent.
“We couldn’t compete on the money angle of it, and maybe now we know why,” Ms. Topinka said last week, adding that she had long been told by lobbyists that they had to “drop a $10,000 entry fee” to work with Mr. Blagojevich. “Anything that didn’t move was sold,” she asserted.
Still, as time went on, colleagues said fund-raising seemed to grow increasingly difficult even for Mr. Blagojevich, who had always been seen as a master at it.
Legal bills, meanwhile, began to mount: his campaign records show he had paid more than $1 million to a law firm, Winston and Strawn (which no longer represents him), and a report as of June 30 this year revealed that the campaign owed $750,000 more to the firm.
Other politicians began to avoid public appearances with him and speaking invitations dropped. Mr. Blagojevich, who had once seemed to bask in news coverage, found himself answering questions about the corruption investigations at nearly every event. After his arrest on Tuesday, Mr. Blagojevich met with almost no one, other than lawyers and ministers.
Not long after his spat with his father-in-law was made public in early 2005, setting off more corruption investigations, Mr. Blagojevich reflected on his work, and said it had changed him in a way.
“What I’ve discovered since I’ve been governor is that there’s a certain loneliness to this job,” he said in an interview. “There’s a loneliness and a certain sadness because you have to isolate yourself to some extent. There are so many people who want so many different things from you.”
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times