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Local, state lawmakers: Blagojevich mess will linger for years

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For the local legislators who kicked him out of office two years ago, Rod Blagojevich’s sentencing closes a sad chapter of Illinois history.

But although Blagojevich ends the chapter in a prison cell, lawmakers agree that the state will be dealing with his fiscal and ethical “legacy” for years to come.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel handed Blagojevich a 14-year prison sentence Wednesday, almost three years to the day that federal agents arrested him for trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama for personal gain.

State Rep. Mike Tryon, one of the 117 House members who voted to impeach the Democratic ex-governor, said he hopes the sentence deters future political corruption.

But Tryon tempered his disgust for Blagojevich and his satisfaction over the sentence out of respect for Blagojevich’s wife and two daughters.

“The sentence ought to be a good deterrent for people serving the public trust – if you violate it, there’s a penalty to pay,” said Tryon, R-Crystal Lake. “It’s a sad day for Illinois and a sad day for his family.”

State Rep. Jack Franks, who was one of Blagojevich’s earliest and most vocal critics, said that “justice was done” with the harsh sentence.

“We owe the people of Illinois an honest government that works for their interests, and this sends a very strong message that accountability should be the rule in Illinois government, not the exception,” said Franks, D-Marengo.

But Franks said Illinois residents will continue for years to pay the price for the misconduct of two consecutive convicted governors – Blagojevich and Republican George Ryan before him.

Rep. Kent Gaffney, who was the House Republican budget director during Blagojevich’s reign, said Blagojevich is to blame for much of the state’s fiscal turmoil.

“He did a lot of damage aside from the corruption. Here we are ending the year with $6 [billion] to $8 billion in unpaid bills, a big tax increase and a whole bunch of other problems, and one of the main reasons we’re here is because of Rod Blagojevich,” said Gaffney, R-Lake Barrington.

Removing Blagojevich from office was the first duty that newly sworn-in Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, faced. Duffy said that Zagel “has turned up the heat on Illinois politicians.”

“I hope this sends a clear message to all of the people in Springfield who are currently participating in the culture of corruption by their actions or their conscious decision not to take any action when they see corrupt activities taking place,” Duffy said.

Statewide officeholders also weighed in on Blagojevich’s sentence. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, the former lieutenant governor who stepped up after his impeachment, called the sentencing “a somber day in our history” and that Blagojevich let him and everyone down.

Republican Treasurer Dan Rutherford said Blagojevich “brought the 14-year sentence on himself.” Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan blasted Blagojevich for running on a platform of reform but instead “used his position to pursue illegal and morally bankrupt schemes motivated by power and greed.”

“The former governor will now have plenty of time to consider his performance over these years, and quietly assess the consequences of his actions,” said Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who lost a bitter 2006 race against Blagojevich. “It may seem like an eternity to him, but in truth, the damage he has caused to our state will far outlast any prison sentence he will serve.”

Tryon and Franks both said that some good has come from Ryan and Blagojevich, namely ethics reforms enacted after their falls from grace. Voters in 2010 amended the Illinois Constitution to implement a system, albeit a complicated one, by which voters can recall the governor. The measure’s proponents, Franks and Quinn, originally sought to give voters the ability to recall any Illinois elected official.

Franks said voters should take having two consecutive convicted governors as a challenge to better educate themselves on the issues and to vet their candidates wisely. Blagojevich won his second term in 2006 despite federal investigations and the indictment weeks before the election of his top fundraiser, Tony Rezko.

“We still have a culture of corruption that has permeated all levels of Illinois politics,” Franks said. “We need to be vigilant and get involved.”

Democratic Party of McHenry County Chairman Michael Bissett said the local party has “absolutely nothing but disgust” for what Blagojevich did, and said he hopes that it does not hurt local candidates in 2012.

“We’re trying to build a grass-roots organization. There’s no link between what happens in Chicago and what happens here. It’s up to us to put that message out, that we’re here for the right reasons,” Bissett said.

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