There have always been two faces of Rod Blagojevich — the fight-for-the-people, charming yet combative populist he portrayed to the public; and the inept, reclusive and apparently vindictive administrator whose actions defied logic, his own words, and the interests of those he professed to help.

There have always been two faces of Rod Blagojevich — the fight-for-the-people, charming yet combative populist he portrayed to the public; and the inept, reclusive and apparently vindictive administrator whose actions defied logic, his own words, and the interests of those he professed to help.


Which is the real Blagojevich? A national audience getting their first full taste of Blagojevich last week probably thinks the latter one is the guy. He’s like a cartoon character, with his pronounced coiffure fodder for TV comics and the foul-mouthed diatribes and harebrained schemes detailed in prosecutorial documents.


The documents stunned many in Illinois as well — including those of us who have watched the governor go from a little-known state representative and member of Congress to a fundraising force who wowed downstate areas in particular in 2002 to become the first Democrat in 26 years to win the governor’s office.


Seeking a Cabinet post, corporate board spots for his wife, or a cushy foundation job in exchange for naming someone to the U.S. Senate? Trying to get members of the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune fired in exchange for state help in selling Tribune-owned Wrigley Field? Talking about withholding millions in funds to Children’s Memorial Hospital because its CEO didn’t come through with campaign cash? Those are allegations enumerated by Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and his team against Blagojevich.


Blagojevich has often denied any wrongdoing as a tangle of federal investigations have surrounded him. But his own words, caught by federal bugs in his Chicago campaign headquarters and on the phone at his Chicago home, paint a picture of someone looking out for himself, and not, as he has proclaimed, doing “good things for people.”


But even before the 2002 election, there were signs that the Blagojevich facade didn’t match the reality.


Some examples:


--Back in the summer of 2001, then-U.S. Rep. Blagojevich’s father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Dick Mell, told Democratic county chairmen meeting in Springfield that his candidate son-in-law not only “took to campaigning like a duck to water,” but was “a Jacksonian Democrat — not necessarily a Jesse Jackson Jacksonian, but an Andrew Jackson Jacksonian, who said, ‘to the victor remains the spoils …’”


Mell seemed to have been silenced after that story was printed. But he stopped being silent in early 2005, after Blagojevich temporarily shut down a landfill run by a Mell relative. Blagojevich would “throw anybody under the bus” for his own gain, his father-in-law said then.


“He uses everybody, and when there’s no more use, he discards them,” Mell told the Chicago Sun-Times. He also told the paper that a key fundraiser for the governor, Chris Kelly, “trades appointments to commissions for checks for $50,000.” He later recanted that statement under threat of lawsuit, but the comment jump-started investigations into pay-to-play schemes. Kelly, a Burr Ridge roofing contractor, was indicted late last year on tax fraud charges related to gambling debts and personal use of company money.


The governor’s other chief fundraiser, Chicago-area businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko, has been convicted of fraud, money laundering and aiding and abetting bribery in trying to get illegal payoffs from firms hoping to do business with the state.


--In the spring of 2002, Blagojevich attacked a primary opponent, Paul Vallas, for spending money on “chauffeur-driven limousines” while working as schools chief in Chicago. At a rally at AFL-CIO headquarters in Springfield shortly before the primary, I asked if Blagojevich would take Illinois State Police drivers if he were elected governor.


“Do you get one?” said Blagojevich, who was either fibbing or hadn’t noticed his surroundings during the four years he had served in the General Assembly. “I never even thought about that.”


A little more than two years later, WLS-TV in Chicago revealed that Blagojevich and family had taken 12 taxpayer-funded bodyguards and six vehicles to the Democratic National Convention in Boston and the same number of cars but only 10 guards to California for a fund-raiser and the wedding of an early chief of staff.


--In his first full day in office, Blagojevich fired 35 top-level state employees, saying he would “eliminate unqualified, unnecessary and overpaid individuals wherever I find them in state government.” He admitted he didn’t know any of them, including one who had been in the room when he started his announcement. Many got their jobs back later as courts found Blagojevich didn’t act properly. Blagojevich, who often spoke of giving the state “reform and renewal” and “a new way of doing business,” later added more than a dozen Democratic county chairmen to the state payroll.


--In his first veto session, the governor chastised lawmakers for spending money “like a bunch of drunken sailors” because they overrode vetoes of some appropriations. But that same week, Blagojevich, who has never spent more than occasional nights at the Executive Mansion in Springfield, was commuting between Chicago and the capital city each day on a state plane. “I want to go home and kiss my baby,” he said.


--At the Illinois State Fair in 2003, Blagojevich made a point to call me over so I could hear a retired Decatur policeman repeat what he had just told the governor — that public employees are basically lazy and are “always wanting raises for doing less work.”


“He’s tapping into something that we’ve discovered,” Blagojevich said.


Blagojevich himself, though, seems to slough off the regular duties of the governor, such as keeping up with pardon requests. He has been regularly late to events — even to a lawmaker’s funeral where he was a speaker — and has spent long periods away from Springfield when the General Assembly is in session. A WBBM-TV story in Chicago a year ago, based in part on observation of the governor’s Chicago house, found him often at home during business hours, and, the report said, he was “often absent from his Thompson Center office” in downtown Chicago. That story also noted how the governor flew a state plane to Chicago to watch a hockey game while the House was debating a bailout for Chicago-area mass transit.


Interestingly, it turns out, the report also noted that the governor often makes calls from his home or works from his nearby campaign office — the two places where the feds recorded him in recent weeks.


--A key break in trust between Blagojevich and fellow players in Springfield came in the summer of 2003, when, weeks after the agreed budget passed, he demanded that other constitutional officers cut their spending. This and other breaches of his word in Springfield led lawmakers to demand written promises from his administration before some later budgets were passed. Observers called the move an unprecedented example of lack of trust in the word of the chief executive.


--He spent most of his 2004 State of the State address berating people who work for the State Board of Education, calling it a “Soviet-style bureaucracy.” The then-state school superintendent later said the governor’s plan to replace most members of the board was retribution because people Blagojevich wanted hired weren’t given jobs at the schools agency. Blagojevich did get leeway to name new, more cooperative board members.


--Even as the front-line state employees he derided have taken on extra work because positions haven’t been filled, Blagojevich has kept one oft-repeated promise — not to raise income or sales taxes. But in 2007, Blagojevich nonetheless proposed the largest tax increase in state history. The so-called gross receipts tax on most transactions of large businesses would have yielded $7.6 billion a year. Blagojevich insisted this was a tax on “big corporate CEO” types, but even fellow Democrats realized it would hurt consumers. House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) engineered a House vote that turned down the tax concept 107-0.


The lack of trust in Blagojevich and budget bickering, compounded by Blagojevich’s penchant to call special sessions when no deal is imminent, has helped keep the state from matching billions in federal construction dollars and has contributed to Illinois amassing a $4 billion backlog in paying its bills.


--While talking about openness in government as a candidate, Blagojevich in recent years has made a habit of entering and leaving the Statehouse, on his rare appearances there, through out-of-the-way areas such as a loading dock accessed by a low-ceilinged basement hallway.


But his administration has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on video and still photographers and satellite time to make his image available to TV stations. More than $5,000 was spent with a St. Louis firm to shoot and distribute video of Blagojevich running a relay race in southern Illinois, justified as a way to promote tourism.


Examples of the two faces of Blagojevich could go on and on, and the new allegations from federal prosecutors make some of the best cases. Blagojevich has sought to provide health-care coverage to more people than the legislature funds, acting as if it’s a crusade. But his alleged shakedown of a children’s hospital official for the $50,000 contribution calls into question his sincerity.


And, irony of ironies, his administration makes state employees take an ethics test many think is a joke, while the man elected to lead them apparently has choice, vulgar words for anyone who would keep him from cashing in on his position.


It’s no wonder there reportedly were celebrations in some state buildings when the news broke last week that Blagojevich was being charged with crimes. State employees are ready to work for somebody who cares about what they do. And voters across the state, finally paying attention after a couple of elections, may be ready for honest leadership as well.


Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at (217) 788-1540 or bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com.