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Blagojevich a distraction for Democrats

Former governor’s retrial complicates campaigns in Ill.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan said Democrats should deal with the Rod Blagojevich issue “head on.’’ Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan said Democrats should deal with the Rod Blagojevich issue “head on.’’ (Associated Press)
By Deanna Bellandi and Christopher Wills
Associated Press / August 22, 2010

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Alexi Giannoulias had planned to talk jobs. The Democrat in a tight race for President Obama’s former Senate seat wanted to take the opportunity to say his Republican opponent had helped wreck the nation’s economy.

Reporters, though, only wanted to talk about the ousted Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, a newly convicted felon who is expected to be retried on some counts.

The unfinished business of the Blagojevich trial poses a major new hurdle for Illinois Democrats, who are already facing a difficult election season. Despite hopes that Blagojevich’s trial would wrap up well before the November vote, a retrial could begin as soon as this fall, in the final weeks of campaigning.

Blagojevich’s saga will keep diverting attention from the pocketbook issues Democrats want to talk about as they try to keep Obama’s old seat, hold on to the governor’s mansion, and maintain their lock on the state Legislature.

The publicity-loving Blagojevich, convicted on one count of lying to the FBI, will give Republicans endless opportunities to question Democrats’ ethics.

Pat Kelly of Springfield, a retired instructor at the State Police academy, said she will judge candidates from both parties on their own merits. But she acknowledged that the scandal doesn’t help Democrats this fall.

“We like to vote for individuals, but this is a huge black eye for them,’’ said Kelly.

So far, the Blagojevich saga hasn’t resonated in Democratic campaigns outside Illinois, unlike the ethics scandals surrounding US Representative Charles Rangel of New York and US Representative Maxine Waters of California. But the Obama seat is an important one numerically for Democrats to maintain their power in Washington.

It had seemed like Illinois Democrats would escape much of the damage of the trial because testimony wrapped up earlier than expected, with no big-name Democrats hauled to the witness stand.

That changed last week when the jury deadlocked on all but one of the 24 counts against Blagojevich and prosecutors vowed to retry the case as soon as possible. That means the impeached governor and the allegations that he tried to sell Obama’s old Senate seat will stay in the news as Illinois voters make their choices.

Greg Miller of Chicago says the trial outcome won’t affect his vote.

“All the candidates to me are just a mess, both Republican and Democrat,’’ said Miller, a self-employed event planner.

Republicans are counting on voters to be angry about Blagojevich. The GOP says it won’t have to keep harping on him because voters will have plenty of reminders.

“I think maybe in their minds they can say, I’ll send my own guilty verdict so to speak and my own message by voting for Republicans in the fall,’’ said Illinois House Republican leader Tom Cross.

Illinois Democratic Party chairman Michael Madigan has urged candidates to deal with the issue of Blagojevich “head on.’’ He said they should remind voters that it was a Democrat-controlled Legislature that impeached and removed Blagojevich from office.

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