The Chicago Syndicate: "The Unreformer"
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Monday, July 17, 2006

"The Unreformer"

Friends of ours: Joe "the Builder" Andriacchi

There's only one politician in Illinois who can make Republican gubernatorial candidate Judy Barr Topinka look like a reformer: Gov. Rod "The Unreformer" Blagojevich.

Blagojevich, a Democrat, is also known as "Official A." But that one is on the tongues of rampant speculators who read federal court documents. I'd rather stick to "The Unreformer." It's folksier.

Topinka is looking better by comparison because Blagojevich is being pounded by a scandal a day, with federal investigations of state pension deals, patronage hiring and contract cronyism.

So Judy should be playing "Lady of Spain" on her accordion, waltzing nimbly toward the governor's mansion, correct? Perhaps not.

Blagojevich has entertained the taxpayers of Illinois since he took office as a reformer with the backing of his now estranged father-in-law Ald. Richard Mell (33rd). One of the governor's first reforms was to hire Joe Cini, a City Hall guy from the mayor's Department of General Services, as state patronage chief.

Cini came to my attention in those heady reform days when Blagojevich put Bill Fanning on the Illinois Gaming Board. In 2004, Fanning took part in a mysterious board vote to support a casino in Rosemont, something former Gov. George Ryan wanted as business as usual. But state and federal investigators said a Rosemont casino might not be prudent.

Some Rosemont casino investors were tied to Mayor Richard Daley's City Hall, like Sue Degnan, wife of Daley's political brain Tim Degnan. She was listed, most curiously, as a disadvantaged minority. But the reason the FBI didn't like Rosemont had to do with something else. Investigators believed some Rosemont casino investors had ties to the Chicago Outfit.

After the vote, I learned Fanning was a former shirttail relative of reputed Outfit boss Joe "the Builder" Andriacchi. When I started asking around, he quietly told board members he knew Andriacchi only slightly, then he was quietly let go.

The Blagojevich administration, in full reform mode, quickly fingered Cini as the one who recommended Fanning. And last year, when the indictments of Daley's patronage chief Robert Sorich made news, Blagojevich was asked about patronage armies and reform. He told reporters he called Cini "just to make sure" there was no patronage going on.

"I called up our patronage ... [here Blagojevich stopped in midsentence remembering that patronage meant `business as usual'] "He's not even that. He's intergovernmental affairs director, we even changed the name, and just to get some reassurance ... and his answer kind of summed it up: Of course we don't do those things," Blagojevich said in October of 2005.

Lo and behold, now Cini is under federal investigation for "those things." It was detailed in a fascinating Tribune scoop on July 2 by Tribune reporters Ray Long, Rick Pearson and John Chase. They reported how Blagojevich's own inspector general denounced the administration in a report for subverting state patronage laws, including violating provisions designed to give military veterans preference in winning state jobs. "This effort reflects not merely an ignorance of the law, but complete and utter contempt for the law," wrote Blagojevich's first executive inspector general, Zaldwaynaka "Z" Scott.

Since then it's been story after story, with Blagojevich on the defensive, desperately shaking hands at parades, head bobbing furiously like one of those dolls they give out to the first 10,000 fans at the ballgame, loudly insisting he's a reformer. He says he's glad to hear about the problems, because that way he can fix them. But while Rod is perceived as a phony, Judy can't seem to get much traction. Perhaps that's because Republicans know her too well.

More than half of all rank-and-file Republicans who voted in the primary voted for other candidates. They see Topinka as the handmaiden of the Republican side of the Illinois combine, a creature of party bosses. Included among these is "Big" Bob Kjellander, the Republican National Committee treasurer who scored millions of dollars in finder's fees from Illinois state pension deals under the Blagojevich administration. How's that for bipartisanship cooperation?

Folks trying to explain her problems with conservative Republicans often mention her liberal social views, her support of gay rights and abortion. That's part of it, but a small part.

The core Republican vote is angry over Illinois political corruption and the taxes and the Kjellanders. They know that Topinka, as chairman of the Illinois GOP, helped drive former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald out of politics. She refused to endorse him for re-election though he was the incumbent, because Fitzgerald had the audacity to bring politically independent federal prosecutors to Illinois.

Topinka's bosses didn't like that. But the rank-and-file sure did. So even though Blagojevich's troubles delight the Topinka camp, they must be haunted by this:

Rank-and-file Republicans aren't well organized. They allow themselves to be divided. But like elephants, they never forget.

Thanks to John Kass

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