Facing federal corruption charges that threaten to end his political career, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has made clear to the world what those close to him know well: He’s not one to be easily fazed.
"I have done nothing wrong. And I’m not going to quit a job that people hired me to do because of false accusations and a political lynch mob," a composed yet combative Blagojevich said Friday, addressing the public for the first time since his arrest 10 days earlier.
"I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath," Blagojevich said. He took no questions from reporters and immediately left the room after wishing his listeners, "Merry Christmas, happy holidays."
The 52-year-old Democrat’s uncompromising pledge comes as little surprise to those who know him, but doesn’t necessarily resonate.
"I just think that he is living in an alternate reality right now," state Sen. Christine Radogno, a suburban Chicago Republican said earlier Friday. "I don’t think he’s being realistic, probably even with himself, with respect to how much trouble he’s in so he’s just carrying on with what’s worked for him before."
Blagojevich is charged with scheming to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat for big campaign contributions or a lucrative job for himself. Prosecutors built their case on Blagojevich’s wiretapped conversations.
"I’m here to tell you right off the bat that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing, that I intend to stay on the job, and I will fight this thing every step of the way," Blagojevich said.
Acknowledging his political isolation, he recited the opening lines of the stirring poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you …"
What he hopes to accomplish by staying in office appears unclear. Blagojevich appears to have no political support, the Illinois House having voted 113-0 last week to assemble an impeachment committee, and his ability to govern has been crippled.
Still, following his appearance, Blagojevich issued 22 pardons. Aides wouldn’t provide any information about why he granted the pardons, or what crimes the people were accused of committing, but the move served as reminder of the governor’s authority.
Republican state Sen. Dale Righter said that if Blagojevich manages to escape impeachment, his governing will be limited to signing legislation, directing his agencies and other "housekeeping stuff." Blagojevich will not be able to work with lawmakers or energize the public to support his ideas, Righter said.
"Is this governor finished as a leader? I don’t think there’s any question about that," he said. "I don’t think the instrument has yet been invented that can measure how little credibility he has."
After the speech, disappointed Republicans argued that if Blagojevich cannot be dislodged right away, he should at least be disarmed. They called on the Democrats in the Legislature to hold a special election to fill the Senate seat, stripping Blagojevich of the power to make the appointment.
"Anything short of resignation today from the governor was unacceptable," said Illinois GOP chairman Andy McKenna.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn pleaded with Blagojevich to step aside under a constitutional provision that allows him to keep his title but give his duties to an acting governor — which, under the rules of succession, would be Quinn.
"Our state cannot wait while the chief executive battles in the court of law while we have so many issues affecting safety and welfare of the state of Illinois," Quinn said.
Even before the speech, Blagojevich’s lawyer, Ed Genson, a hard-charging Chicago criminal defense attorney, had made it plain the governor would not go down without a fight.
Genson challenged the Illinois House impeachment committee at every turn this week, arguing that the wiretaps were illegal, accusing some of the panel members of having already made up their mind, and complaining that Illinois law does not spell out the grounds for impeachment or what evidence should be considered.
"He’ll worry about the criminal part, the governor will continue to govern," said another Blagojevich attorney, Sam Adam Jr.
The impeachment panel wants federal prosecutors to release details of their probe of Blagojevich, including copies of the taped conversations, and give the Legislature some guidance on who can be called as a witness without compromising the federal case.
Blagojevich, a former boxer, has for years cultivated an image as a fighter — dating back to his youth, when he trained for the Chicago Golden Gloves. During his first campaign for governor in 2002, Blagojevich and his aides would sum up each day’s success in boxing terms: 10-10 for a draw, 10-9 a win, 10-8 a decisive win, a knockdown, and so on.
Once in office, he earned a reputation for publicly sparring with everyone from his Chicago alderman father-in-law to the powerful Democratic House speaker.
"Now I know there are some powerful forces arrayed against me," Blagojevich said Friday. "It’s kind of lonely right now. But I have on my side the most powerful ally there is, and it’s the truth. And besides, I have the personal knowledge that I have not done anything wrong."