The consensus among insiders seems to be that the departure of Deputy Governor Bradley Tusk this month will mean a less confrontational administration in the coming years.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich has always been someone who thrives on controversy, and Tusk, a young, brash New Yorker, did his level best to keep that spark alive each and every day. Tusk had no history in politics here and never had any intention of ever working in Illinois after he left the administration, so he wasn't all that particular about whose toes he was stepping on. And it showed.
Over the years, the governor and Tusk alienated one politico and interest group after another, until almost the entire Statehouse was screaming with real and imagined umbrage. Even so, the governor's list of policy achievements is impressively long, and Tusk has to get much of the credit along with the blame.
Blagojevich and Tusk formed a strong bond early on, even before Blagojevich was elected. "What do you all think of a guy who would go to a church in southern Illinois and sing a gospel song, 'Peace in the Valley' or 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord'?" The Sun-Times reported that Blagojevich asked a small group of advisers in 2001, as he was preparing to run for governor. Tusk, along for the ride as a friend of Blagojevich pal John Wyma, was the only person present who said it would be a good idea.
Tusk was brought in to replace Blagojevich's first deputy governor, Doug Schofield, after Schofield left just weeks into the first term. The choice was almost universally derided at the time, considering Tusk's age and lack of experience, but he always had the governor's full support and he jealously guarded his role as chief image maker. Lots of administrative insiders might have griped about Tusk from time to time, but few, if any, ever crossed him.
Because of his close relationship with the governor, the hole created by Tusk's departure is huge and the jockeying for power has begun in earnest. Former chief of staff Lon Monk, who left government to run the governor's campaign and is one of the governor's most trusted friends, is not coming back, and current chief of staff John Harris (who has received consistently high marks since coming to the administration) is reportedly in line for an expanded role in the next term. Harris is a no-nonsense technocrat from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration, and plenty of people who have grumbled about the Blagojevich-Tusk team have been impressed by Harris' professionalism.
Budget director John Filan may also be given a more important job, insiders say. A new position, chief financial officer, may be created for him, possibly giving him an even tighter hold on state spending. The next budget director would report to Filan. Director Filan's job is to say "No" a lot, so he's not the most popular guy in Springfield, to say the least.
The third leg of the triumvirate will be Sheila Nix, who will reportedly replace Tusk as deputy governor. Nix had been at the center of policy formulation before moving to the campaign as the governor's chief spokesperson. Nix, for instance, wrote the violent video game regulations that were recently ruled unconstitutional by the courts. She was also deeply involved in the controversy over forcing pharmacies to dispense the "morning after" pill. Nix has been a relentless advocate on behalf of Blagojevich both in and out of government, but her style is less overtly confrontational than Tusk's, which is what is leading people to believe that we're in for a kinder, gentler administration next year.
The rhetoric may indeed be toned down, but remember that Bradley Tusk isn't the governor. Rod Blagojevich has always relished a good fight, and jabbing at his adversaries on the playing field has been his first reaction throughout his career, even if it meant angering ostensible allies. He wouldn't have taken Tusk's advice if he didn't think it was the right thing to do. It remains to be seen whether Nix will truly break with the past. Considering all the elbows thrown during the veto session, with House Speaker Michael Madigan refusing to speak with the governor and Senate President Emil Jones attempting to assert his dominance, she certainly has her job cut out for her.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com