I was probably more surprised than anyone when I was invited to tag along on Gov. Rod Blagojevich's road trip last week. The governor toured the state to push his universal health insurance plan and his gross receipts tax on business. I was on the bus with him for three days and we talked for countless hours.
I had a cordial relationship with Blagojevich back when he was in the Illinois House, but that was a long time ago. Over the years, the governor granted interviews to almost every other news bureau in the Statehouse, but I was excluded. He has visited just about every editorial board of every major (and quite a few minor) newspaper editorial boards, but I was kept away. During one press conference a few years ago, Blagojevich refused to answer any questions from me at all, so I whispered my questions to a couple of willing Chicago TV reporters who relayed them on my behalf, knowing he couldn't ignore them.
That's not unusual. I wasn't given much access to George Ryan. One of Ryan's top aides once threatened to put my political newsletter out of business. I was granted almost no access at all to Jim Edgar, and one of his former aides once helped draft a piece of legislation designed to put the company I wrote for back then out of business.
The part of the tour that most impressed me was just how much the governor thrives on a tough fight. He draws strength from negative press coverage, intransigent political opponents and booing crowds. He was practically ecstatic after last Tuesday's event in Quincy, where he was severely heckled by more than half the audience over his gross receipts tax proposal. The boxer analogy often employed by Statehouse observers (the governor fought in Golden Gloves) is right on the money. He loves a fight. He joked at one point that he misses Judy Baar Topinka, but I think he misses last year's long campaign brawl more than he misses her.
That lust for battle often leads to problems, of course. Blagojevich jabbed Rev. Jesse Jackson hard after Jackson turned against the gross receipts tax last week, attacking Jackson's motives by claiming he was listening to his "contributors."
Going in, I had given Blagojevich the benefit of the doubt that he was absolutely committed to providing some form of universal health insurance, and that was confirmed during the trip. He is convinced that the lack of health care is the biggest problem facing the nation today, and he's not fazed at all by the fact that state legislators aren't getting many calls from people who believe as he does. Regular folks, he said, don't call their state legislators. Besides, he asked, what does that say about legislators if they only respond to the concerns of people and interest groups who seek them out?
That's a good point, but it underestimates the level of sheer panic in the General Assembly about this tax hike plan. If he wants to get something done by the end of the scheduled legislative session, then he has to do something soon to calm the nerves of thousands of anxious business owners.
He does seem to grasp the political dangers of the gross receipts tax. He admitted he knew that his proposed $7 billion tax hike could make him another Richard Ogilvie, the Illinois governor who was ousted in the 1972 election after imposing a brand new income tax. Blagojevich said he was willing to "wear the jacket" and take all the blame for his tax increase.
If Blagojevich's approval rating was higher, that would be a much easier task. Legislators could simply hide behind his political skirts. But since his ratings are so low, particularly downstate, he can't provide legislators much, if any, cover. He may be willing to lose his job over this tax hike, but most of them aren't.
So, does this bus trip change the coverage Blagojevich will get from me in the coming weeks, months and years? I'm sure it will. I now have a much better understanding of where he's coming from. And, frankly, he gets a lot more blame than he should on some things and not nearly enough credit.
He ought to bring more reporters in for a long, close look. There is definitely a "there" there.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com