The ‘Hug Heard Round Illinois”

Rich Miller/Capitol Fax
Rich Miller/Capitol Fax

It was the "Hug heard 'round Illinois," but did it really mean anything?

Gov. Rod Blagojevich showed up late to the Democrats' national convention in Denver. Most others arrived the weekend before Monday's official kickoff, but Blagojevich didn't get there until Tuesday, just in time to attend a reception that evening and then a Wednesday morning breakfast sponsored by organized labor.

You all know what happened next. Blagojevich and his lifelong nemesis House Speaker Michael Madigan held a long sidebar meeting at the Tuesday evening reception. They talked about how they haven't talked in months, and agreed to talk some more. Sen. Hillary Clinton's call for party unity earlier that evening had apparently sunk in.

But the following morning's labor breakfast brought seemingly stunning developments. At the urging of Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., Madigan and Blagojevich hugged - and it wasn't one of those "I'm gonna hug you until I break your spine," hugs, either. It looked almost, well, genuine. The two enemies who had locked each other in a death vise for months were smiling ear to ear, patting each other on the back, while the stunned partisan crowd roared its approval with an extended standing ovation.

"I gotta cut back on the 'shrooms," cracked one reporter who witnessed the blessed event but still wasn't quite sure if he hadn't just hallucinated the whole thing.

Party elders and labor union leaders were immediately hopeful that the supposed new era of good feelings meant that the odious Denver Boot which Blagojevich and Madigan had locked onto all four wheels of state government years ago would finally be removed by the magic of Denver's rarified air. Might a way finally be found to implement the much-needed but perennially stalled multibillion dollar infrastructure program, and patch the horrific state deficit, and resolve education funding reform, and provide universal health insurance?

Maybe not.

"It's all theater," confided one top Blagojevich aide later in the day. A Madigan lieutenant pointed out that Madigan was the one who walked over to Blagojevich at Jackson's urging and had to practically pry the governor out of his seat. No happy talk could be found.

But could it be that the aides de camp hadn't gotten the message? That very evening, Madigan and Blagojevich continued their détente by sitting next to each other at the Democratic convention.

Remember, these are two men who have been trying to destroy each other for years. Perhaps it would just take a while before their top soldiers could be demobilized and reprogrammed.

Or not.

Blagojevich, Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones had promised Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago) that they would sit down and discuss Meeks' idea to avoid a threatened student boycott of the Chicago Public Schools. Meeks was proposing a $120 million plan to reform the state's worst public schools. He few out to Denver to set up the confab, and he then waited and waited for the governor to agree to a meeting time. Madigan had said he was willing to meet whenever the governor was ready, so it all depended on Blagojevich.

The call never came.

The governor, it turns out, had flown back to Chicago to announce huge state budget cuts Thursday morning, including the layoffs of hundreds of state workers and the closures of several state parks and facilities. The cuts were announced at a time when they would be buried far underneath the coverage of Sen. Obama's finely choreographed acceptance speech and John McCain's dramatic vice presidential announcement.

All of a sudden it seemed to many like everything had been some sort of cynical ploy.

There was no inkling that the same governor who seemed so pleased with the new political thaw was secretly sharpening his meat ax. He had no time to meet with Meeks for a few minutes, but had plenty of time to fly back to Chicago to lay off Downstate workers.

If Illinoisans listened carefully, they could almost hear the bile boiling over all the way from Denver.

By the end of the week the only truly happy people were the House Republicans. They've been closely allied with Blagojevich on the stalled infrastructure proposal, but have been simultaneously searching for ways to tie Madigan and his Democratic House candidates to the horribly unpopular governor, in order to gain some political advantage this November.

The "hug" photos were all they needed.

"Coming to a mailbox near you!" gloated one House GOP operative last week.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and