Before former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich reports to prison Thursday, he did what he perfected over three rocky years trying to fight federal corruption charges: He spoke to the people.
Mr. Blagojevich received a 14-year prison sentence in December after two federal trials, being convicted in the second one of charges related to the attempted "sale" of President Obama’s former US Senate seat, which he had the power to appoint. He must report Thursday afternoon to a federal prison in Englewood, Colo., where is expected to serve at least 12 years of his sentence.
But before leaving Illinois, he staged a public relations fete outside his house in Ravenswood Manor, on Chicago’s North Side. Billed as his “public goodbye,” the event felt like a summer street festival: The street was blocked off to accommodate the media onslaught, as well as more than 100 well-wishers and curiosity-seekers, some carrying signs (“Free Blago”), banners, and anything they could get the former governor to sign.
Cued to make the evening news of the local TV stations, all of which carried the event live, Blagojevich stood on his front lawn with his wife, Patti, and spoke extemporaneously for about 12 minutes.
He thanked his supporters and trumpeted his achievements as governor – free Metra rides for senior citizens and breast cancer prevention screenings, for example, that were familiar refrains in his defense during both trials. For him, he said, they brought “a sense of accomplishment” in providing services to “ordinary people who didn’t have a voice.”
“I never raised the income tax on the people. I take that with me on my next journey,” he said.
Without directly addressing his political enemies or the team of federal prosecutors who recorded hundreds of hours of his conversations with aides, Blagojevich, a Democrat, described his actions as “political talk” and said he felt that what he was doing, in regards to “horse trading”-related campaign fundraising, “was on the right side of the law.”
“I accept [the sentence] as hard as it is … this is the hardest thing I had to do, but it is the law and we follow the law and I will be doing that tomorrow,” he said.
Parts of the event bordered on the surreal. At one moment, supporters tried to drape an American flag across the shoulders of Blagojevich and his wife, where it hung momentarily. Others tried to shove mementos in his hand. Chants of “free our governor” burst out intermittantly.
Still, there were times that, despite the circus environment, Blagojevich appeared genuinely affected by the gravity of the situation. He acknowledged that he had trouble speaking the word “prison” out loud. He lamented the effect his absence will have on his wife and two young daughters.
He said that he felt “a tendency to focus on bitterness and anger” but that he had to fight himself “not to go there.”
“We are teaching our children that through hard times and in tears, you have to live through hopes and not your fears,” he said.
Blagojevich was joined by his legal team and said he was appealing his sentence and that he still has “great trust and faith” in the outcome.
His wife will not be joining him in Colorado. She is the realtor representing the couple’s five-bedroom, 3,817-square-foot home, which remains on the market for $998,000.
Before leaving, Blagojevich searched for an appropriate closing remark to leave the public until the next time – a long time from now – he’ll be before a microphone.
“I will see you around,” he said.
Then he pressed through the crowd and signed autographs for the rest of the hour.