Today marks the unofficial fifth anniversary of the start of the rapid fall of Illinois’ 40th governor. It was on this date that federal prosecutors began attempting to nail Rod Blagojevich for hatching a half-baked plan to sell then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder.
On this date in 2008, prosecutors tried to convince one of Blagojevich’s aides to wear a wire to record the mop-topped, two-term chief executive as he tried to figure out a way to benefit from Obama’s ascension to the White House.
Two days later, wiretaps caught Blagojevich talking about Obama’s vacant Senate seat and his ability as governor to name a replacement as a “golden” opportunity, expletives deleted.
Blagojevich was ousted by the legislature soon after and, two high-profile trials later, was convicted of corruption. He now resides in a federal pen in Colorado where his once-dyed hair is presumably a bitter shade of gray.
But that infamous piece of Illinois history isn’t the only thing that makes this week special.
Tuesday marks the first time state lawmakers will gavel in for the fall veto session in a building that has undergone $51 million in renovation work. Members of the House and Senate will have the opportunity to enter the building through new copper-clad doors on the west wing that cost three-quarters of a million dollars.
They’ll get a chance to meet in newly renovated hearing rooms decked out with high-tech video screens, snazzy new carpet and chandeliers patterned after what was first installed in the building back when it was built in the 1800s.
They could even take a quick run through the new press room, now located in a basement space once occupied by a cafeteria. My office is steps away from the old salad bar.
So what do Blagojevich and the renovated Capitol have in common?
The architect who oversaw the restoration says a lot of the money was spent trying to bring the Capitol back to its historical splendor, while at the same time preparing it to be a strong, useful seat of government for generations to come.
It is pretty grand, but the job isn’t complete.
There is a blank space on the second floor of the Capitol that needs to be filled.
The second floor of the Capitol’s south wing is known as the Hall of Governors.
Portraits of governors dating back to the founding of the state hang on each side of the marble-lined hallway, allowing visitors a glimpse of each of the state’s chief executives from Shadrach Bond to George Ryan.
One portrait, however, is missing, leaving a historical uncertainty in our midst.
Usually, when a governor is on his way out, the General Assembly votes to pay for a portrait. George Ryan’s was $15,000 in 2003.
But, after Blagojevich’s ouster, lawmakers approved a law barring the use of public funds to hang a portrait of the foul-mouthed felon in the Hall of Governors.
That means private money will be needed to bring the Capitol into compliance with history.
And, unless Blagojevich’s own family wants to pony up the cash for a picture, that means it is up to the rest of us to ensure visitors to the Capitol don’t leave wondering why George Ryan, Dan Walker and Otto Kerner have pictures, while our latest crook is a blank spot on the wall.
That leaves us with various fundraising possibilities.
Perhaps a golden toilet could be placed in the Hall of Governors to collect pennies from the thousands of school children who trek through the building as part of their annual sixth-grade civics trip.
Another idea: sell gold-colored combs for $1 in honor of Blagojevich’s obsession with his hair.
If enough money is raised, the next question becomes what kind of picture would we hang. It’s not clear who would have a say in how the portrait would portray Blagojevich. The Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, which is charged with maintenance in the Capitol, claims it is responsible only for pounding in the nail.
Perhaps we could commission something along the lines of George Ryan’s portrait, which fittingly shows the recently released federal prisoner with his hand resting on what looks like a crystal cookie jar shaped liked the Capitol.
For Blagojevich, a blown-up booking photo from the day of his arrest might be the most historically accurate thing to hang on the wall.