Unsung Hero Behind Blagojevich Arrest Could Fill Senate Seat

Is it possible that the next U.S. senator from the persistently blue state of Illinois could be a Republican?

It’s not out of the question, thanks to the state’s current monumental political scandal — the arrest of its sitting Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich, for allegedly trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat and assorted other shakedowns.

Of course, the only chance of a Republican succeeding Obama is if the state Legislature decides to take the power to fill an empty Senate seat away from the governor, and call a special election. At this moment, a tide is growing among state legislators to do just that.

Blagojevich, if true to form, could try to stymie that plan by sitting on the legislation for 60 days before letting it become law — enough time to throw a wrench into the works by unacceptably delaying the primary and general election into mid-2009. He also could try to use his amendatory veto to insert unacceptable provisions, such as pushing back the date of the election.

If the Legislature manages to take away his power to appoint, there may be no better Republican candidate than the unheralded hero of the Blagojevich scandal: the former Republican senator from Illinois, Peter Fitzgerald.

Credit rightfully is being heaped on the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation), for running the investigation that led to Blagojevich’s arrest. But if it weren’t for Peter Fitzgerald — who preceded Obama in the state’s junior senator’s seat — there would never have been a Patrick Fitzgerald here who has done such a marvelous job of rooting out corruption.

Peter Fitzgerald was exactly the kind of politician that the state’s political establishment couldn’t tolerate: He was honest. As the senator of the prevailing political party at the time, Fitzgerald had the de facto power of nominating the district’s U.S. attorney. He picked Patrick Fitzgerald, who had garnered a tough and honest reputation as the U.S. attorney in New York who successfully prosecuted terrorists.

You might think that such an appointment would have been popular, except for the fact that this is Chicago and Illinois, arguably the most corrupt big city and state in the Union. Instead, the political establishment, including Democrats and Republicans, fiercely opposed the nomination. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), among them, were incensed: Rooting out corruption in Chicago had fallen to chief federal prosecutor here for a variety of reasons, and they didn’t want anyone going after their pals.

Peter Fitzgerald prevailed against those powerful odds, and that is worth a separate story. Suffice to say that Peter Fitzgerald is responsible for Patrick Fitzgerald, who is perhaps the only public official in the state that has both the power and the will to nail the grafters and goniffs. Since his arrival, the former governor (George Ryan) and a steady parade of Chicago aldermen and lesser state and local officials have worn a path to prison.

Peter Fitzgerald is a fiscal and social conservative, who originally managed to get elected by beating the establishment’s candidate in the Republican primary and then convincingly defeating the state’s previous and incompetent, Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley Braun. While he served, he continued his independent course by, for example, opposing Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s efforts to lag his pals billions of dollars in contracts and jobs in an ill-considered plan to expand O’Hare International Airport. For that, he earned the eternal enmity of both Democrats and Republicans.

At this moment, Peter Fitzgerald is virtually the only well-known politician in the state who cannot be challenged on some level for an ethical lapse. It might be just the ticket for Illinois voters who — one can hope — finally are fed up with the corruption and incompetence of a state entirely controlled by Democrats.

A big “if” is the current ill health of the Illinois Republican Party. Unable to win a single statewide office, the party could fracture, as it usually does, in a primary between conservatives and the “county club Republicans” who are widely perceived to be too cozy with Democrats. Already being mentioned is the name of Mark Kirk, the Republican, incumbent north suburban congressman, who managed to beat a strong Democratic challenge in an increasingly Democratic district that went for Obama.

Finally, there is the question of Peter Fitzgerald himself. Would he run? He voluntarily retired from the Senate after one term, in the face of a concerted effort by the political power structure to defeat him. Obama filled the seat in a breeze, thanks to GOP incompetence finding a viable candidate.

What would it take Illinois voters to finally reject the usual cast of clowns running for office? Maybe the Blagojevich scandal, but I’ve spent a lifetime reporting here, and I worry that it would take even something more outrageous.