Parties clash over potential special election in Illinois

December 16, 2008 5:25:54 PM PST
Illinois Republicans have launched a political ad campaign demanding a special election to fill the Senate vacancy that Gov. Rod Blagojevich allegedly tried to sell, hoping to pick up a seat they had no shot at before the scandal. Democrats, after initially supporting such an election, this week canceled a vote on the matter and backed away in the name of good government. They say an election would cost up to $50 million and leave the state with a Senate vacancy until at least April - giving the new senator an even shorter window before the 2010 campaign cycle heats up.

Republicans say Democrats are simply afraid of losing the election, particularly if a potential backlash arises from the criminal charges against Blagojevich. They claim Democrats want to hold onto the power to appoint a senator.

"The people of Illinois deserve better than another political power grab," says a television ad from the Illinois GOP.

The head of the Republican National Committee says the Democrats' insistence on avoiding a special election shows that the party does not value openness and transparency unless it's politically convenient.

The president-elect was pulled into the dispute Tuesday when Obama refused to say whether he supports a special election. The RNC said Obama "punted" rather than take a position on a vital issue.

The battle over Obama's seat unfolded as a special Illinois House committee met for the first time to consider impeaching Blagojevich, who is accused of trying to auction off the seat to the highest bidder.

The panel's review is expected to include the criminal charges against Blagojevich as well as a long list of other possible wrongdoing during his six years in office: abuse of power, taking action without legal authority, ignoring state laws and defying lawful requests for information from the General Assembly.

The committee met only briefly, postponing any real action until the governor's attorney arrives Wednesday. Ed Genson's remarks to the panel could give the first hint of whether Blagojevich intends to fight every step of the process.

But members of the committee, which will make a recommendation on impeachment to the full House, said they will not rush to judgment.

"Let us remember that we're not Alice in Wonderland. We're not the Red Queen. We do not sentence first and then do the verdict," said the chairwoman, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Democrat from Chicago.

It wasn't clear Tuesday how many witnesses would be called to testify before the committee. But at least one name became public: Terry Mutchler, formerly an expert on public information disputes for the Illinois attorney general. She planned to testify Thursday about "dozens of incidents" in which Blagojevich aides withheld records that should have been public.

Blagojevich was arrested last week at his Chicago home. Some Democrats including Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn immediately suggested that the next senator be chosen in a special election.

Illinois legislative leaders called a special session to pass the necessary legislation. Sen. Dick Durbin also endorsed the idea.

But Quinn now says an election would leave the seat vacant for too long. Durbin says Blagojevich should step down so that Quinn can name the next senator.

Even if Blagojevich left, Republicans argue, they would not want Quinn picking a senator. Quinn has never been a close Blagojevich ally and has a long record as an advocate of good government. But Democratic voters did pair him with Blagojevich in two elections, and he has sometimes defended the governor's honesty.

The only way to get a senator without any ethical cloud is to elect one, the GOP argues. "Whoever gets appointed is going to be wearing the stench of this scandal for two years and beyond," said Republican state Sen. Christine Radogno.

If a Democratic governor appoints Obama's replacement, the Senate seat is certain to stay in Democratic hands. Although Illinois is a solidly Democratic state, the public anger toward the Democratic governor means a GOP victory would not be out of the question.

The Republican Party in Illinois does not hold a single statewide office or control either legislative chamber. Ironically, the party's troubles were exacerbated by its own ethics scandal.

GOP Gov. George Ryan spent most of his term under federal investigation and was convicted on a variety of corruption charges after leaving office. Blagojevich won two elections by linking his Republican opponents to Ryan.

The Illinois GOP will not say how much it's spending on ads criticizing Democrats, particularly Quinn, for their position on a special election. A spokesman said the ad is running on cable television in markets that include Springfield and Chicago.

The Republican National Committee has put together an Internet video on the topic that notes Obama's connections to Blagojevich.

The video, titled "Questions Remain," shows pictures of Obama with the governor, along with an array of headlines about Blagojevich's arrest. It includes a 2006 quote from Obama saying he would be happy to help the governor's re-election effort, if asked.

The video doesn't mention two key facts: that prosecutors say they have no reason to think Obama did anything illegal or that federal wiretaps recorded Blagojevich saying Obama's team was refusing to cut any deal on the Senate seat.

Blagojevich kept up his routine Tuesday of leaving for his Chicago office without commenting to reporters parked outside his home.

Minutes later, a Chicago judge delayed indefinitely the sentencing of jailed political fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko, probably adding to Blagojevich's problems.

The delay appeared to signal that Rezko's on-again, off-again relationship with the federal prosecutors investigating Illinois government was on again.

Rezko, who raised more than $1 million for Blagojevich's campaign fund, was a major adviser to the governor and as a member of the inner circle could give federal investigators an extraordinary glimpse into the burgeoning political scandal.


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