Governor Rod Blagojevich was declared a "winner" by the Chicago media after the spring legislative session ended last week.
Adjourning the session by May 31 while, for a change, getting along with other Democrats, upholding his promise not to raise taxes, and coming up with lots of new programs and comprehensive medical malpractice reform made him look pretty good in many eyes.
"Blagojevich and top Democrats managed to end the spring legislative session on time and on a surprising high note," reported the Sun-Times.
"As he shook hands and gave thumbs-up signals among Democratic senators, Blagojevich's smiling demeanor was a far cry from only a few weeks earlier when, battered by criticism of cronyism and mismanagement, he retreated from public view, his poll numbers sagging," the Tribune noted.
After the session ended, the governor held press conferences in several parts of the state to play up his new budget's increased funding for early childhood education. He has found a small foothold and apparently wants to take full advantage while his window of opportunity is still open (sorry to mix my metaphors).
That's good politics for the short term, but there are lots of problems ahead.
Just about every reporter I know who is employed by a major media outlet is working on at least one big story about alleged corruption or shady practices within the Blagojevich administration. Not all of these investigations will bear fruit, of course, but we can expect plenty of negative reports in the days and weeks ahead. His "window" could close soon as reporters dig into the shenanigans at the Department of Central Management Services, the state Lottery and allegedly hinky hiring practices all over the place.
And then there's the Cook County grand jury, which was announced shortly after the governor's father-in-law, Alderman Dick Mell, accused Blagojevich and one of his pals of trading appointments for campaign contributions. Mell recanted under threat of a lawsuit, but the grand jury went ahead anyway.
Both of the people who are leading the grand jury investigation into alleged administration corruption have gubernatorial ambitions. Attorney General Lisa Madigan doesn't want to run for governor next year, but Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine is giving it some thought.
Devine is not a great candidate, but he wouldn't admit it. He was elected to his first term, in 1996, almost solely because of the Democrats' hugely successful "Punch 10" straight-ticket voting campaign. The Dems spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the campaign, which restored the Illinois House to a Democratic majority and vaulted no-chance candidates like Devine into the winner's circle. To twist an old saying, Devine was born, politically, on Second Base and thought he hit a double.
Devine's innate political skills alone aren't a real threat to Blagojevich, but his grand jury most certainly is. Far be it from me to ascribe political intentions to any Cook County prosecutor, but what better motivation could there be to come up with high-level indictments if a person could use those potential perp walks to kick off a bright, shiny new gubernatorial campaign?
The Blagojevich people would do well to convince some reporters or editorial boards to pin Devine down on what, exactly, are his political intentions. If Devine wants to run statewide, he probably shouldn't be investigating the governor.
If the governor's folks don't sideline Devine, then we could be looking at Jim Thompson Redux. Thompson, you may remember, was a federal prosecutor who jailed a former Democratic governor (Otto Kerner) and used that to catapult himself into the governor's mansion in 1976. Then again, if Devine loses the November election, that would give us a Dan Walker/Mike Howlett/Jim Thompson Redux. Walker was the incumbent Democrat who lost the 1972 primary to Mike Howlett, who then lost the general to Jim Thompson.
History never repeats itself exactly, but things are starting to look mighty familiar these days.
Even if Devine doesn't run against Blagojevich in the primary, that grand jury probe could still do a lot of damage to the governor, with or without indictments. Cook County grand jury proceedings have been known to leak in the past. I'm not saying Devine would do it. I'm just saying it's happened.
So, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The governor may be starting to turn a corner. But what went down in the first two years of his administration may ultimately undo whatever cosmetic changes he makes now.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.