Democrats catch break with Blagojevich trial’s early end, no big-name witnesses

By Deanna Bellandi, AP
Thursday, July 29, 2010

Democrats catch break with trial’s early end

CHICAGO — Jurors deciding if former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat were out of sight Thursday, a far more benign result for Democrats than if the corruption trial had lasted through the summer as expected while the party geared up for tough elections.

By the time prosecutors and defense attorneys were done, there had been no sharp-tongued Rahm Emanuel on the stand, squaring off with Blagojevich’s lawyers over the White House chief of staff’s talks with an adviser to the ousted governor about who to appoint to the Senate.

There was no Alexi Giannoulias, the current Illinois treasurer and Democratic candidate for Obama’s old seat, being asked about how he introduced a union official to a close Obama adviser that Blagojevich considered for the Senate seat.

And there was no testimony from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also a Democrat, who Blagojevich’s lawyers also originally subpoenaed to testify about the appointment.

Blagojevich’s lawyers rested their case last week without calling a single witness, not even the former governor himself. That not only spared Democrats any potentially embarrassing testimony but could mean the trial wraps up well before Labor Day — the traditional kickoff of the fall campaign.

“They dodged a bullet because it would have been weeks of dragging in these high-level people and talking about the schemes and all that,” Illinois GOP chairman Pat Brady said.

Blagojevich’s attorneys had plastered Washington and Illinois with subpoenas. Besides Emanuel, Reid and Giannoulias, his lawyers also initially wanted Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin to appear. They even wanted to subpoena Obama, but weren’t allowed to by a judge.

That none of them ended up testifying doesn’t mean Republicans will let voters forget that Blagojevich is a Democrat as they try to pry loose the party’s grip on the Senate seat and Illinois state government.

And other issues, like Illinois’ $13 billion deficit, help mitigate the damage of the Blagojevich trial, said DePaul University political science professor Michael Mezey.

“It’s going to be yesterday’s news by the time election season starts Labor Day,” he said.

Because of Blagojevich’s antics — from appearing on reality TV to singing an Elvis song at a street fair — some argue that he is no longer defined primarily as a Democrat.

“I think there is often a line that you cross when you go from being associated with a party to being just your own off-kilter personality,” said Democratic consultant Chris Lehane. “And wherever that line is, I think he crossed it a long time ago.”

Tying an opponent to corruption in the party was Blagojevich’s own strategy during the 2006 campaign, when he was re-elected governor after repeatedly linking his Republican opponent to former GOP Gov. George Ryan, who went to prison after being convicted of corruption.

That may be a challenge for Gov. Pat Quinn, Blagojevich’s former lieutenant governor, who is seeking a full term of his own after succeeding the impeached Blagojevich. While the two men had been on the outs for years, Republicans have still linked them.

For the White House, top aides being called to testify would have been an unwanted distraction, even though none of Obama’s allies were accused of wrongdoing, said Lehane.

“You obviously would not want a situation where the chief of staff at the White House or a senior adviser to the president has to raise their hand and take an oath and then testify in a criminal proceeding that at the end of the day is about whether people engage in illegal forms of politics,” Lehane said.

Emanuel, who reportedly was captured on FBI wiretaps, had been authorized by Obama to pass along to Blagojevich’s office the names of potential Senate replacements, according to an internal inquiry former White House counsel Greg Craig conducted for Obama shortly after the election.

During the trial, prosecution witnesses said Blagojevich had considered appointing Jarrett to the Senate seat if he could get a Cabinet post from Obama in exchange.

Giannoulias has said he introduced Jarrett to Tom Balanoff, an official with the Service Employees International Union. Prosecutors have said Blagojevich sent word through Balanoff that he would appoint Jarrett if Obama gave him a top-level job. Durbin has said he talked to Blagojevich about possible Senate replacements.

Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to all charges and has vehemently denied doing anything improper while deciding who would be awarded the Senate seat. He eventually appointed Democrat Roland Burris, who is not seeking a full term. Giannoulias, Republican Congressman Mark Kirk and the Green Party’s LeAlan Jones are vying for the seat in November.

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