Springfield, Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached Friday by Illinois lawmakers furious that he turned state government into a “freak show,” setting the stage for an unprecedented trial in the state Senate that could get him thrown out of office.
The 114-1 vote in the Illinois House came exactly a month after Blagojevich’s arrest on charges that included trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. The debate took less than 90 minutes, and not a single legislator rose in defense of the governor, who was jogging in the snow in Chicago.
Later, a defiant Blagojevich insisted again that he committed no crime, and declared: “I’m going to fight every step of the way.” He portrayed himself as a victim of political payback by the House for his efforts to extend health care and other relief to the ordinary people of Illinois.
“The causes of the impeachment are because I’ve done things to fight for families,” the 52-year-old Democrat said at a news conference where he surrounded himself with people that spokesman Lucio Guerrero said had benefited from the state’s expanded health care program. He took no questions.
Blagojevich becomes the first U.S. governor in more than 20 years to be impeached. Arizona’s Evan Mecham was impeached, convicted and removed from office in 1988 for trying to thwart an investigation into a death threat allegedly made by an aide.
No other Illinois governor has ever been impeached, despite the state’s storied history of graft. Blagojevich’s immediate predecessor, George Ryan, is behind bars for corruption, and two earlier governors also went to prison.
The Senate trial is set to begin Jan. 26. While impeachment in the House required only a simple majority, or 60 votes, a two-thirds vote would be needed for conviction in the 59-member Senate.
The criminal case against the governor included charges he tried to sell the Senate seat for campaign cash or a plum position for himself or his wife, and pressured people into making campaign contributions.
The impeachment case was based on the criminal charges plus other allegations — that Blagojevich expanded a health care program without authority, that he circumvented hiring laws to give jobs to political allies, that he spent millions on flu vaccines that he knew couldn’t be brought into the country.
Blagojevich did not testify before the House impeachment committee and has not offered an explanation for the criminal charges. “His silence in this grave matter is deafening,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat.
Rep. Elga Jefferies voted “present.” Rep. Milton Patterson, also a Chicago Democrat, voted against impeachment. Patterson said later that he was not defending anyone, but that he read the impeachment committee’s report and wasn’t comfortable voting against the governor.
After returning from his jog, Blagojevich said his situation reminded him of the short story “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” about a petty criminal who takes up running.
Later, at the news conference, Blagojevich portrayed the impeachment vote as another round in a long struggle with the House, which he said had repeatedly thwarted his efforts to help real people.
After his arrest, Blagojevich defied practically the entire political establishment by appointing someone to the Senate, former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris. That provoked a furor as state and federal officials struggled over whether to seat Burris.
On Friday, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Burris’ paperwork was valid and that Illinois’ secretary of state did not have to sign his appointment. Timothy Wright, Burris’s attorney, told reporters later that the secretary of state had signed a document certifying the appointment, a claim disputed by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s legal adviser.
Nathan Maddox said the letter “is not the official Senate appointment document.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Friday that the Senate would not accept Burris without the signature and therefore efforts to seat Burris should stop “until that impeachment trial in the Illinois Senate is concluded.”