Who Is Rod Blagojevich?
Rod Blagojevich was born in Chicago on December 10, 1956. In 1986, he became the Cook County Assistant State's Attorney. In 1996, he made his way to the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 2002 he was elected governor of Illinois. From there, Blagojevich's career was mired in scandal, culminating with his conviction in 2011 on 17 counts of corruption.
The youngest of two children, Rod Blagojevich was born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 10, 1956. His father, Radisa Blagojevich, was an immigrant steel plant laborer from Serbia and a former Nazi prisoner during World War II. His mother, Millie, was the child of immigrants from Bosnia-Herzegovina and worked as a ticket-taker for the Chicago Transit Authority. The family lived in a working-class immigrant neighborhood in Chicago.
Rod and his older brother, Rob, were immersed in their parents' cultures from an early age. They spoke fluent Serbo-Croatian to their father, whose English was limited. They were also part of a folk music group their mother made them join, which required them to wear traditional dress, play instruments and sing Serbian love songs. Rod, however, admits that his musical idol was Elvis Presley, a man whose lyrics he would later turn to for inspiration when making political speeches.
Blagojevich referred to his performance in school as "mediocre," once calling a D he received in his high school algebra class "a case of grade inflation." But the young man spent his time out of school working hard; he took on odd jobs as a shoe shiner, a pizza delivery boy, and a meat packer to help the family pay the bills. As a teenager, Blagojevich was also an avid sports fan who played on the basketball team and trained briefly to be a Golden Gloves boxer.
After high school, Blagojevich enrolled at the University of Tampa. He spent two years in Florida before transferring to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. To afford college, he began working for the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System as a dishwasher. In 1979, Blagojevich received his bachelor's degree from Northwestern, and he entered Pepperdine University Law School in Malibu, California, soon afterward.
Friends and acquaintances during this time remember Blagojevich as a voracious student with an impressive knowledge of U.S. presidents. Blagojevich was also talked about as one of the more socially conservative students in the class, who didn't drink or socialize much. "We would go see the Clash and paint our hair purple and Rod wouldn't go," one of his classmates remembers. He graduated with his Juris Doctor in 1983, and immediately began work as a private attorney in Chicago.
In 1986, Blagojevich joined Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's legal team as the Cook County Assistant State's Attorney, where he specialized in domestic abuse crimes and felony weapons cases. Two years later, he decided to return to private practice. During this time, he attended a fundraiser hosted by Chicago Alderman Richard Mell in the hopes of drumming up more business. Instead, he became infatuated with Mell's daughter, Patricia. The two fell in love and married in 1990, going on to have two daughters, Amy and Anne.
Illinois State Senator to Governor
Mell put his political weight behind his new son-in-law, who told reporters later that he had never considered a life in politics. According to Blagojevich, his new father-in-law acted as his political advisor, encouraging him to run for State Senate. "I called him up and asked him would he like to take a shot at state rep, but by the way, you're probably going to lose," Mell said of Blagojevich's first election campaign. The young lawyer, however, was not deterred. In 1992, Blagojevich beat out incumbent Democrat Myron Kulas to become a member of the Illinois State House of Representatives.
In 1996, Blagojevich made the leap to Washington, when he won the Illinois 5th district seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, beating out Republican Mike Flannagan for former U.S. Representative Dan Rostenkowski's seat. Blagojevich went on to serve three terms as a congressman. His most notable achievement during his service came in 1999, when he helped Reverend Jesse Jackson free three U.S. prisoners of war in Yugoslavia.
With Mell's help, Blagojevich once again decided to run for office in 2002‚ this time as a gubernatorial candidate for the state of Illinois. Campaigning as an idealistic, progressive candidate against corruption, the young politician won his bid against Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris and Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas. His election made him the first democrat in 26 years to win a governorship in Illinois.
Before his had finished his first term, however, a dispute between Blagojevich and Mell soon put the new governor out of favor with his father-in-law. The argument came in 2005, after Blagovich shut down a landfill site owned by a distant cousin of his wife, Patricia. It was later revealed that Mell had acted as an advisor to the cousin on the matter and, in a public feud, Mell accused Blagojevich of "using" him to get ahead.
In December of 2005, Blagojevich found himself in the middle of a fresh scandal when it was reported that contracts for fast-food franchises at the renovated Illinois Tollway oasis were given to Blagojevich campaign donors. The next year, the governor was again under investigation after receiving a $1,500 check from personal friend, Mike Ascaridis. The money came shortly after Ascaridis' wife, Beverly, was given a job at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, despite having failed the required state hiring exam. Blagojevich claimed the check was a gift to his daughters; Beverly said she believed the money was given in exchange for her position.
Blagojevich also faced questions about his ties to Tony Rezko, a business tycoon and key fundraiser for Blagojevich. The governor appointed Rezko to a number of boards in the city. Rezko and several other Blagojevich fundraisers were later indicted for using their power on these boards to extort money from businesses. Despite the allegations, Blagojevich won re-election in 2006. During this time, the governor's actions aroused suspicions in U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who began closely investigating the governor's activities.
Impeachment and Corruption Trials
By 2008, Blagojevich's performance as governor had earned him a 13 percent approval rating, giving him the title of "Least Popular Governor in the Nation." Later that same year, federal agents finally had enough evidence to arrest the governor for attempting to trade President-elect Barack Obama's newly vacant senatorial seat in return for campaign contributions and a high-paying job for his wife. Transcripts of phone conversations also revealed that Blagojevich threatened to block financial assistance to the company that owns the Chicago Tribune newspaper, unless they fired members of the paper's editorial board who criticized the governor.
On January 29, 2009, following an extensive Senate trial, Blagojevich was impeached and barred from ever holding public office in the state of Illinois. Two separate and unanimous votes of 59-0 by the Illinois State Senate found the governor guilty of abuses of power.
Around this time, Blagojevich began making the media rounds on programs like Today and Late Show with David Letterman to proclaim his innocence, and also signed up to compete on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice. However, his problems were far from over: He was indicted by a federal grand jury on criminal corruption charges in April 2009 and was convicted of lying to the FBI in August 2010, though a mistrial was declared on the other 23 counts. Hauled back to court for a retrial, Blagojevich was found guilty on 17 of 20 corruption charges on June 27, 2011, and was sentenced to 14 years behind bars.
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