- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2010

Illinois Democrats are bracing for a retrial of former Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

But as the Land of Lincoln’s economic woes continue to worry voters, Republicans, who have been quick to blame the Democratic-controlled state government, may not feel the need to use the long-running Blagojevich corruption scandal as a campaign trump card.

“Maybe in a different environment Blagojevich would be front and center, but my guess is Republicans think things are so bad they think they don’t really need him” as a campaign issue, said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Anything [Republicans] get out of him is just a bonus.”

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 this 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 President Obama’s old Senate seat will stay in the news as Illinois voters make their choices in November.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a fixture in the state’s politics for 40 years, has warned Illinois Democrats that voters are “very volatile” and that the party should not shy away from addressing the Blagojevich scandal.

“We all know that there’s a huge scandal hanging over our heads,” Mr. Madigan said Wednesday, as reported in the Chicago Tribune, while speaking to Democratic county chairmen at a breakfast before the party’s rally at the Illinois State Fair.

“My view, my recommendation: Let’s deal with it head on,” said Mr. Madigan, the state Democratic chairman. “The Democrats in the legislature recognized the problem we had and we moved forward.”

Democrats are trying to stress to voters that it was their party that led the charge to impeach Blagojevich in January 2009, weeks after the former governor was arrested on a slew of federal corruption charges.

“The guy is out of office because of Democrats, so that makes it harder for Republicans, a number of whom were pretty tight with Blagojevich, to really try to make some kind of hay,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said.

“The voters are just as mad at Republicans as they are at Democrats.”

Mr. Brown added that “whatever the problem will be [at election time] is the problem already; I don’t think it changes more or less based on a retrial.”

While voter anger against Democrats is high, it has little to do with their former governor, Mr. Gaines said. The state government’s budget troubles among the worst in the country instead have given Republicans ample fodder to attack Democrats.

“Nothing has improved; in fact, things have gotten worse since they got rid of him,” said Mr. Gaines, referring to Blagojevich. “It’s hard to know who else to blame when the Democrats hold all the power” in state and national governments.

The Democrats’ struggle to hang on to Mr. Obama’s former Senate seat has been hampered by criticisms that Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias had mismanaged a bank owned by his family.

Republicans also have hammered Mr. Giannoulias, Illinois’ state treasurer, over new reports that the bank in 2006 lent money to development company partially owned by Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who was then tied up in a corruption probe that ultimately led to his conviction.

The loan documents don’t list Rezko as an owner, and the transaction took place five months after Mr. Giannoulias says he left the bank’s day-to-day affairs to run for Illinois treasurer.

Yet any Republican attempt to link Mr. Giannoulias with Mr. Blagojevich’s legal woes won’t resonate much with voters, said Charles Wheeler, a University of Illinois at Springfield political science professor and a former longtime political reporter in the state.

“That argument reflects the belief that voters in Illinois are pretty damn stupid,” he said.  “The fact that [Mr. Giannoulias] was treasurer when Blogojevich was governor, I don’t think [Republicans] need to go there because it’s insulting to the voters.”

Mr. Wheeler said he doubted the Blagojevich saga will cause the well-enntrenched Illinois Democratic establishment — which controls the state’s legislature — to crumble.

He added that the state’s burgeoning Hispanic and Asian populations, which tend to vote Democratic, also will help insulate the party from the Blagojevich story.

“On the one hand, the news of the moment is bad for the Democrats, but on the other hand the underlying trends favor them,” he said.

Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady, while speaking to the media after a Thursday speech in Springfield, said the ex-governor’s legal woes are a distraction from the Republican message of lowering taxes, balancing the state budget and creating jobs, according to the Chicago Tribune

“This election needs to turn the page on corruption, turn the page on insider politics and give the people an opportunity to bring those jobs back to Illinois,” the paper quoted Mr. Brady as saying.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.