The weeks of cable TV jokes about Illinois' culture of corruption were confronted by a very abrupt and sober tone today as Gov. Rod Blagojevich presided over the state Senate for slightly more than an hour. The chamber officially elected two new legislative leaders, inviting an odd combination of awkwardness and hope. While the leaders face an ominous budget crisis, they first have to determine whether to remove Blagojevich from office for allegations of corruption and abuse of power. That trial process started today, and the Senate officially summoned the governor by delivering a copy of the grounds for impeachment to his Statehouse office.
Toby Trimmer, the Senate Democrats’ communications director, said the governor’s deputy general counsel, Andrew Stolfi, accepted the summons on Blagojevich’s behalf.
A few hours before, Blagojevich fulfilled his constitutional oath by swearing in the 96th General Assembly. The affair dripped with irony as he introduced Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who would take his place if convicted by the Illinois Senate or by the feds; Supreme Court Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, who will preside over his impeachment trial; and Auditor General William Holland, who repeatedly wrote critical audits of the Blagojevich Administration. He also testified before the special Illinois House committee that recommended impeachment last week.
Legislators and guests in the Senate did not react when Blagojevich walked in, or more like slipped in from a back room of the chamber. He smiled and waved to a few people in the crowd, but his demeanor soon changed. He remained rather stoic as Senate members described the challenges ahead.
“Ideally, we’d be electing a Senate President under much different circumstances,” said Sen. Louis Viverito as he officially nominated Sen. John Cullerton as top Democratic leader. “A historic budget shortfall, the rising unemployment and the trial of our governor, never before has this [body been called upon] to deliberate these serious and solemn issues.”
He added that today’s proceedings marked an opportunity to take one “significant and meaningful step towards" restoring the public’s trust. When the Senate trial concludes, added Sen. Heather Steans, “we must address a massive budget deficit, pass meaningful ethics reform and get Illinois working and building again with a capital program.”
Blagojevich remained at the podium, looking directly at the speakers, sometimes glancing down or shifting his weight. He remained stoic and did not clap after their comments. But he gave a few closing comments of his own: “These are challenging times, hard economic times facing the people of Illinois. I hope we can find a way when dealing with other issues to find the truth and sort things out and put the business of the people first, to make sure we find solutions to the problems confronting people, do the best we can to ease their burdens and try to help people build better lives.”
He ended with what seemed like a personal request. “I hope that we can find some inspiration in Abraham Lincoln’s words of ‘with malice toward none, with charity for all,’ let us come together and get the business of the people done.”
Senate impeachment trial starts
By Jamey Dunn
The Senate officially elected Democratic Sen. John Cullerton as Senate president and Republican Sen. Christine Radogno as minority leader. Each voted for the other as a symbolic gesture of bipartisan cooperation and determination. While both acknowledged the daunting tasks ahead, starting with Blagojevich’s impeachment trial, they said it’ll get even harder when lawmakers have to figure out how to keep the state operating with lower-than-anticipated revenues and more than $4 billion in overdue bills.
Adding to the bad news, Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias later issued a warning that the state’s investments are not fairing well in the economic downturn. In a written statement, he said that the interest the state earns on its investments could be the lowest since the office started recording returns in 1986.
The Senate unanimously voted to adopt the rules for the impeachment trial, which will begin at noon January 26. They are expected to work six days a week until the process is over, as the rules prevent the Senate from working on Sundays. Until the trial starts, both House Prosecutor David Ellis and the governor’s defense counsel will prepare their cases by making a list of witnesses and pieces of evidence.
After both sides presented their arguments, the Senate will deliberate and vote. If two-thirds or more of the members, or 40 senators, vote to uphold just one charge against the governor, then he will be convicted and removed from office. Then, the Senate would vote whether he could ever hold public office in Illinois again.
House impeaches Blagojevich, again
By Hilary Russell
Perhaps the most peculiar moment of the Illinois House’s inauguration ceremony was that one of the first votes cast by newly elected Rep. Deborah Mell was whether to impeach her brother-in-law, Gov. Rod Blagojevich. She voted no, the only one to do so Wednesday as the 117 other House members re-impeached the governor.
“The charges and impeachment were difficult to reconcile with the man and brother-in-law I know,” Mell said in a statement. “I could not, in good conscience, vote for his impeachment.”
She is a Chicago Democrat, sister of First Lady Patricia Blagojevich and daughter of a well-known Chicago alderman who previously alleged that Blagojevich conducted pay-to-play politics. “Given my unique relationship to the governor, this is a vote to which I’ve given a great deal of consideration,” she said.
The House held its inauguration at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Then it re-impeached the governor as a technicality. The previous General Assembly impeached Blagojevich January 9. But members said it was better to be safe than sorry by allowing the 96th General Assembly to cast its own vote, which also allows new members to be on public record as voting to impeach the governor and use that fact in reelection campaigns.
The legislators dramatically pledged to banish old-style Illinois politics and undo the failures of the Blagojevich Administration, focusing on change, hope and a new beginning for the state and its residents.
House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross accepted the nominations of their peers to continue serving as leaders of the chamber.