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Ill. Politicians Distance Themselves From Blagojevich

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep. The next question in the Illinois governor scandal is who else is touched by it. Just a few days ago, a handful of Democratic Party stars were maneuvering to fill a Senate seat. It was the seat left vacant by President-elect Obama. Everything changed after Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested and accused of putting that seat up for sale. Now, if you're an ambitious politician, your goal is to win the seat while avoiding an appearance of corruption. Our coverage begins with NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY: Governor Rod Blagojevich is still the only one with the power to appoint the next senator. But now that he is accused of trying to auction off the seat for his own personal gain, politicians like Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., are taking great pains to distance themselves from Blagojevich.

Representative JESSE JACKSON, Jr. (Democrat, Illinois): I never sent a message or an emissary to the governor to make an offer, to plead my case, or to propose a deal about a U.S. Senate seat, period.

CORLEY: Jackson has confirmed that he is listed as Senate Candidate Five in the criminal complaint. But he says federal authorities told him he is no target. And when U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced the charges against the governor this week, he offered a small bit of solace to potential candidates. He said despite all the descriptions and code names in the federal affidavit, only two people face charges of corruption, the governor and his chief of staff.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois): We hope you'll bear that in mind and not cast aspersions on people for being named or being discussed or if you learn they're being interviewed.

CORLEY: The list of presumed Senate candidates includes a number of Illinois U.S. House members: Danny Davis, Luis Gutierrez, Jan Schakowsky, and Illinois Senate President Emil Jones. Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, says most of the Senate hopefuls now have a new litmus test - declaring that they didn't offer a bribe to Governor Blagojevich to be appointed.

Dr. DICK SIMPSON (Professor of Political Science, University of Illinois - Chicago): If they're convincing, that'll be fine, and they will move on. If they're not convincing, that will eliminate them as a potential Senate candidate.

CORLEY: Others use another approach - ignore the scandal as much as possible. Former Army helicopter pilot Tammy Duckworth was at a groundbreaking ceremony yesterday. She was appointed by Governor Blagojevich to serve as the director of the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs.

Major TAMMY DUCKWORTH (Director, Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs): I'm just going to focus on continuing to serve the veterans in Illinois.

Unidentified Reporter: Would you like to be U.S. senator?

Major DUCKWORTH: You know, again, I'm not speculating on hypotheticals. I don't think it's appropriate at this time. I'm just going to keep doing the job that I've been doing for Illinois' veterans.

Unidentified Reporter: Thank you.

CORLEY: The real question, though, is how will a new senator be selected if Governor Blagojevich resigns, as many have called for him to do? The state's lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, might be the one who will make the appointment. There have been a number of calls for a special election to be held. The state's current lone U.S. senator, Dick Durbin, backs that idea.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): I want to move as quickly as possible to let the people of Illinois be represented in the United States Senate by a replacement to Barack who can work effectively. I think it's the only way out at this point.

CORLEY: Political scientist Dick Simpson says that type of change will make it more difficult for the people who hope to win a Senate seat.

Dr. SIMPSON: Well, if you're only appointed by one person, it's much easier to convince once person than an electorate. If you have to run for the office, you have to raise between 10 and 20 million dollars and have a campaign organization that stretches across the state. And when Barack Obama did that, it took more than two years of effort to pull together a successful campaign. To do that in a matter or two or three months is going to be a very difficult task.

CORLEY: Lawmakers could put that special election idea on the table when they meet next week. They are expected to also try to find a way to strip Governor Blagojevich of his power to fill the vacant Senate seat. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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