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Flashback: Lynn Sweet 2002 column on Rod Blagojevich and father-in-law Ald. Dick Mell

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NOTE: On election day 2002--the day Rod Blagojevich was elected governor--I spent some time with his father-in-law, Ald. Dick Mell. Back then, they were still close. Here's my 2002 take on what made Rod run. Today, Blagojevich faces impeachment and criminal charges. And Mell and Blagojevich do not speak.

Chicago Sun-Times

November 6, 2002 Wednesday

Fire in the belly, duct tape helped Blagojevich win

BYLINE: Lynn Sweet

CHICAGO-I dropped by the 33rd Ward Democratic headquarters on Tuesday morning to see if Dick Mell was still under lock and muzzle.

He was.

Mell, as everybody knows, is the alderman and Democratic committeeman who is Rod Blagojevich's father-in-law. If Blagojevich were to win the race for governor, the loquacious Mell would have to keep his mouth shut. As it is, Mell ended up starring in a campaign ad--the one Republican Jim Ryan made showing Mell standing on a desk in the City Council chambers when Council Wars was just starting after Mayor Harold Washington died.

Mell allowed me entree to the inner offices of his headquarters on North Kedzie. He was busy studying voting returns of Chicago wards and Cook County suburban townships from the 1998 and 2000 elections. The figures were on sheets of paper coated with plastic, which I thought was a real nice touch. I took Mell up on the orange juice he offered.

But he was so cautious that, tongue in cheek, he authorized me to write only this:

I stopped to see Mell on Election Day, and I could see where the duct tape was pulled from his face."

And one more:

It is remarkable that Ald. Mell, never shy about talking to the press, dropped off the face of the Earth the last two months. There is a rumor going around about this having to do with a large package of chloroform."

That Mell put himself in a coma is one reason Blagojevich, a U.S. House20member and former state representative, was able to be a viable contender and a big winner Tuesday. There are other major factors, of course, not the least of which was Blagojevich's ability to raise a staggering amount of money.

I've been talking to Blagojevich about running for governor since 1999, and one thing is consistent: He never worried about losing.

When Blagojevich and I had our first serious conversation about his then-contemplated run for governor--over lunch in the members dining room in the U.S. Capitol--I was skeptical and wondered why he would want to give up a safe seat for a crapshoot.

When you look back at Blagojevich's campaign--fairly gaffe-free except when he suggested that Ryan was responsible for an accident that killed six children and that helped trigger Gov. Ryan's license-for-bribes scandal--Blagojevich's biggest break came when major political figures decided not to run for governor in the March Democratic primary.

The roll call included former Commerce Secretary William Daley; Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine; Cook County Assessor James Houlihan; former Justice Department official John Schmidt; former Rep. Glenn Poshard, and former state Treasurer Pat Quinn, who opted instead to run for lieutenant governor and ended up as Blagojevich's running mate.

Under a number of scenar ios, if any of these men had entered the primary, Blagojevich probably would have lost, especially since former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas also was on the ballot.

But Blagojevich understood, as only candidates with fire in their belly do, that his decision to run had nothing to do with anyone else. He stayed laser focused. His approach, well, it was pretty much like that line about the lottery--you've got to be in it to win it.

Blagojevich told me in July 2000--when I revealed that the stealth candidate had stockpiled a $1.5 million war chest, which made him a real contender--that he was not one to "shy from challenges and conflicts for fear that I might lose what professional politicians say is a safe lifetime seat." That, he said, is a certain liberating quality."

Blagojevich faces a transition. The years of campaigning are over. Fire in the belly--and duct tape for Mell--have paid off.

Now Blagojevich must figure out how, exactly, he is going to govern.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on December 18, 2008 7:14 PM.

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