ImpeachmentBattle 07-02 Web
Dems fight over impeachment
Three of the state’s governors have served time. Scores of legislators and aldermen have gotten into legal trouble over the years. But Illinois politicians haven’t seriously considered impeaching one of their own — until now.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich finds his enemies these days boldly considering impeachment. The enemies? His fellow Democrats.
The tension boiled over recently when House Speaker Michael Madigan, the powerful head of the state Democratic Party and Blagojevich’s main nemesis, circulated talking points to Democratic legislative candidates on how and why to call for impeachment hearings.
Specifically, it suggests excising "a tumor."
"Criminal activity in the Blagojevich administration is no longer theoretical — it is proven," Madigan’s memo says. "The first step to cleaning up the mess and getting the state back on track may be to remove the governor from office."
The governor’s aides downplay impeachment talk, saying it’s merely an effort by Madigan to distract people from his role as a spoiler on key issues, including a state construction program.
Fighting between Blagojevich and Madigan over the state budget and related issues have led to two long stalemates at the state Capitol and a lawsuit over special sessions. Madigan, in fact, refuses to meet with the two-term governor for any reason.
The battle comes just a few years after Democrats benefited from the fallout caused by the previous unpopular governor, Republican George Ryan. In 2002, Democrats took control of the Legislature and governor’s mansion for the first time in a quarter-century thanks to the scandals that eventually landed Ryan in prison.
An Illinois governor has never faced impeachment. Lawmakers considered impeaching a state Supreme Court justice a decade ago but didn’t follow through. Legislative researchers could only find one impeachment proceeding against a judge in the 1830s, which ended with no conviction.
Illinois lawmakers have complete discretion to decide what merits impeachment. If the House votes to impeach, a trial would follow in the state Senate.
"It may not fly with the public, but if they wanted a strictly political impeachment ... they could proceed," said Jim Nowlan, a former state lawmaker and senior fellow with the Institute on Government and Political Affairs at the University of Illinois.
Impeachment talk started among several House Democrats after allegations that Blagojevich had discussed a state board chairmanship with a top donor. The trial resulted in another Blagojevich donor and friend, Antoin "Tony" Rezko, being convicted on 16 of 24 counts of government corruption.
Blagojevich has not been charged with any wrongdoing and denies the allegations.
Madigan’s memo, first obtained by The Associated Press, gave impeachment a push into the spotlight.
It says the federal investigations into Blagojevich’s administration have "significantly impaired his ability to do his job as governor" and reminds Democrats of what Republicans faced when scandal surrounded Ryan. It lists 30 Blagojevich "misdeeds," including insulting Madigan by calling him a "conservative Republican."
Republicans largely have stayed on the sidelines. They want Democrats to damage themselves with infighting but also want to accomplish key policy goals such as getting a new statewide construction program approved.
Blagojevich argues Madigan is using the memo to divert criticism of his own leadership flaws.
"It’s time for the speaker to join the rest of the legislative leaders who have been working with the governor to pass a capital bill that will put thousands of people to work," Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said.
Madigan’s spokesman and some allies insist the memo is not a statement of where the speaker stands but rather an aid for candidates who might need to answer questions on the issue.
Still, Madigan has done nothing to quell impeachment talk in the House, where Democrats have 67 of 118 votes.
Asked recently if it would take criminal charges against Blagojevich for the House to move forward, Madigan said, "It’s going to take 60 votes in the House."