SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—A half-century ago, saloonkeeper and alderman Paddy Bauler celebrated the defeat of a reform-minded politician by boasting, "Chicago ain't ready for reform yet."
Now, a son of Chicago politics is preparing to ask whether the nation is ready for him.
Far from the television studios of New York and the cauldron of political ambition that is the U.S. Senate, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is trying to make a name for himself as an innovative, against-the-grain, values-minded Midwestern governor, sometimes angering his own family and his Democratic Party in the process.
Assuming he wins re-election next year, Blagojevich (bla-GOYA-vich) could run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. His expected pitch to the Iowa Democrats who will kick off the nominating season in January 2008: I'm a fellow Midwesterner, a governor with a track record of running things and, most importantly, not a Northeastern liberal like Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Blagojevich insists, as all politicians do, that he isn't thinking about a White House run. But he acknowledges that what he does now will help determine his success later. "You do this well, the other things take care of themselves," he said in a recent interview in the Illinois governor's mansion.
What he's doing now is making waves.
In his first term, Blagojevich has angered much of the Democratic coalition, including labor unions, state House Speaker Michael Madigan and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Facing deficits, he cut state spending in most departments to keep the budget balanced, while increasing spending for education and health care.
"The easy way out was to raise taxes," Blagojevich said. "They were clamoring for it."
To the applause of some conservative-minded parents and the skepticism of constitutional scholars, he's proposed banning the sale of video games featuring violence or explicit sexual material to people under the age of 18.
State Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, the chairman of the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee, said courts likely would call such a ban an unconstitutional restriction on free speech, as they have in other similar cases. Cullerton suggested that Blagojevich's true goal is headlines, not a lasting ban.
"This isn't about a law," Cullerton said. "This is about polling and press conferences."
Blagojevich said he has new evidence showing the dangerous effects of video games on young people's minds that would help him withstand any legal challenge. What he didn't say was that a Democratic governor taking on the courts over values could only raise his standing among conservatives.
If so, add parents sick of junk food to the list.
Last year, he proposed banning junk food from school vending machines. "We'd be better off putting apples and oranges in there," said Blagojevich, a trim former Golden Gloves boxer.
Lobbyists for the soft-drink industry fought it. So did school districts, which feared loss of income from sales of potato chips and sodas. "We were not successful," said Blagojevich. "But we're not giving up."
Blagojevich also was among the first governors to help constituents get around soaring medicine prices by buying prescription drugs from Canada. "Tangible results for people," he called it.
Political posturing is what Illinois Republican Party Chairman Andy McKenna calls it. "He's good at reading surveys and hitting hot issues," McKenna said. "Governing requires serving all the people, not just following issues that poll very well."
Blagojevich at times followed a different path even as he rose through the ranks of Chicago Democratic politics. Like many ethnic big-city Democrats, he voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
At the same time, he won election to the Illinois House, then the U.S. House of Representatives seat once held by powerbroker Dan Rostenkowski. He won the governor's office in 2002.
He was often guided by his wife's father, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell. Today, however, he's broken with his father-in-law in a move that underscores how much he's tried to break from old-style Chicago politics.
Last January, Blagojevich ordered a Joliet landfill investigated. It was run by one of his wife's cousins, and the governor learned that the cousin was boasting that he could evade regulations because of his family ties. The state then closed the landfill for environmental violations. Mell stopped talking to his son-in-law.
"I had to make a decision as a governor. I acted based on what I thought was right for the environment," Blagojevich said. "I could have looked the other way and had a better Thanksgiving with the family. But I wouldn't have been doing my job."
If he's cool to his father-in-law, he's loyal to his father, a Serb who immigrated to work in Chicago's steel mills.
Blagojevich knows that his name might be a stumbling block for some voters, particularly outside the East European enclaves of the Midwest. But he prefers to educate people how to pronounce it rather than to shorten or Anglicize it.
"It's the name my father gave me," he said. "It was very important to him not to do anything with it." Except, perhaps, attach it to the title of high office.
For more on Blagojevich, go to www.illinois.gov/gov/.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Rod Blagojevich
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Rod Blagojevich
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