CHICAGO | Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich is legendary in Illinois political circles for not picking up the phone or returning calls, even from important figures such as the state’s senior senator, Richard J. Durbin.
But there was always one call Mr. Blagojevich regularly took, say his aides, and that was from Rahm Emanuel — his congressman, his one-time campaign adviser and, more recently — and troubling for Mr. Emanuel — one of his contacts with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition staff.
The friendly rapport Mr. Blagojevich and Mr. Emanuel shared over the years suddenly has become a troubling liability for Mr. Emanuel and the new president he will serve as chief of staff.
Mr. Emanuel and Mr. Obama have remained silent about what, if anything, Mr. Emanuel knew of the governor’s purported efforts to peddle Mr. Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Mr. Emanuel did contact the governor’s office about the appointment, and left Mr. Blagojevich with the impression that he was pushing Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama friend, so he wouldn’t have to compete with her in the White House for Mr. Obama’s attention, said a source close to Mr. Blagojevich. The source requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to talk about the governor’s discussions regarding the vacancy.
It was not clear whether Mr. Blagojevich inferred what Mr. Emanuel’s motive was for advocating Ms. Jarrett, or whether Mr. Emanuel discussed the appointment with Mr. Blagojevich directly or with John Harris, the governor’s then-chief of staff who also is charged in the case, according to the source.
Mr. Emanuel’s refusal to discuss the matter publicly, and the few comments offered by Mr. Obama to date, have prompted questions about Mr. Emanuel’s ties to Mr. Blagojevich and what fallout he’ll face as the criminal case unfolds, although sources have said he is not a target of prosecutors. Even so, any hint of scandal for Mr. Emanuel threatens to tarnish Mr. Obama’s promise of political leadership free of scandal and corruption.
Mr. Obama has said he will release a full accounting of his transition staff’s interaction with Mr. Blagojevich and his aides over his Senate replacement once he receives the OK from prosecutors sometime this week. Until then, Mr. Obama has said it would be inappropriate for him or his aides to comment further.
Mr. Emanuel’s defenders say he is hardly an ally of Mr. Blagojevich.
“They were in different worlds, personally and politically,” said Peter Giangreco, a political consultant on Mr. Blagojevich’s 1996 congressional campaign and his two gubernatorial races. “They only dealt with each other because they occupied the same political geography.”
Mr. Emanuel’s effort to promote Ms. Jarrett or anyone else for Mr. Obama’s vacant Senate seat was more a part of his new job description and less a reflection of close ties, Emanuel’s supporters have said.
But there was more to their relationship than a polite acquaintance. The two share a political past, rooted on Chicago’s North Side, and a friendly relationship - although not a close friendship - that made Mr. Emanuel the obvious choice to push Mr. Obama’s preferences to fill his vacant Senate seat, current and former Blagojevich aides said.
They at times joined forces politically, like in 2005 to promote importing prescription drugs from Canada and in 2006 to push for an increase in the state’s minimum wage. Mr. Blagojevich, his aides say, wasn’t shy about seeking the help of Mr. Emanuel, referred to in a 2006 Chicago Tribune article as his “Washington-based mentor.”
Mr. Blagojevich was a congressman before he was governor, and he represented the 5th District, a small but heavily populated district in Chicago’s northern and western suburbs, not far from O’Hare International Airport. His rise to Congress has been well-documented of late, including the help he received from powerful Chicago Alderman Dick Mell - his now-estranged father-in-law.