Corruption

The Right Man to Replace Obama

Why the Democrats should nominate Republican Peter Fitzgerald to the U.S. Senate

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Since last week's arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on allegations of corruption, there's been much speculation about who will get to name President-elect Obama's replacement in the U.S. Senate, the seat Blagojevich was accused of trying to auction off.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he'll refuse to seat anyone Blagojevich might try to nominate before he resigns or is forced out of office. But the far more interesting question isn't who will do the naming, but who will eventually be named.

Just about every powerful Democrat in Illinois politics had at one point been mentioned as a possibility. The Democrats know that at this point, anyone Blagojevich names will be tainted. But it seems likely that, fair or not, most leading candidates for the position will have to fight off the perception of corruption, even if eventually named by Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.

So allow me to make an unconventional suggestion for the seat: the Democrats should nominate the last person to hold it, former Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican.

It's not as crazy as it sounds. I first wrote about Fitzgerald in 2004, as he was retiring from his brief stint in politics. He served just one term in the Senate. He won his seat in 1998, after defeating the incumbent senator, Carol Moseley-Braun, who was battling corruption charges of her own at the time.

The reason Fitzgerald's career in politics was so abbreviated is that Fitzgerald isn't your typical politician, and he's most certainly not your typical politician from Illinois. He's principled, he's frugal with taxpayer money, and he has no tolerance for public corruption. That's why he retired from the Senate after only one term. And it's why now would a good time to bring him back.

By the time he retired, Fitzgerald had managed to anger most of his state's congressional delegation, his own party's leadership, some of the most powerful lobbyists and special interest groups in Illinois, and much of his home state's media—in other words, all the right people.

When it came time for Fitzgerald to consider running for re-election, he realized he didn't have his party's backing (they had been recruiting someone to run against him in the Republican primary for years), and he decided to retire. The GOP's first choice for Fitzgerald's seat, Jack Ryan, dropped out after a sex scandal. The party had to settle on gadfly candidate Alan Keyes, who was then clobbered by Barack Obama.

It's almost eerie just how relevant the stands Fitzgerald took during his six years in the Senate—positions that ended his political career—have become today.

Take pork-barrel spending, a high-profile issue in the last presidential campaign and an issue that has figured prominently in recent corruption investigations of members of both parties. Fitzgerald picked his first political fight in 2000 by ticking off then-House Speaker and fellow Illinoisan, Rep. Denny Hastert, when Hastert tried to secure millions in federal pork for an upgrade to the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. When the bill including Hastert's library earmark reached the Senate, Fitzgerald filibustered, to draw attention to his own party's wasteful spending and the fact that the project wasn't subject to competitive bidding.

Later, Hastert and the rest of the Illinois congressional delegation sent a letter to President Bush urging him to lend his support to more federal pork projects in Illinois. Fitzgerald refused to sign, explaining in a letter to other members of his state's delegation that "the mere fact that a project is located somewhere in Illinois does not mean that it is inherently meritorious and necessarily worthy of support."

Taxpayers are now on the hook for $7 trillion in government promises to private companies that made bad business decisions, leading many to question if the Republican Party has lost its free-market bearings. Fitzgerald fought that fight, too. He was the only U.S. senator to oppose the $15 billion bailout of the major airlines shortly after the September 11 attacks. Before being outvoted 99-1, Fitzgerald took to the floor of the Senate and, in a speech he called "Who Will Bail Out the American Taxpayer?", explained that the airlines' failures weren't due to the attacks so much as to a lack of preparation for a crisis and perpetually flawed business plans. It's a speech the Senate could stand to hear again.

Fitzgerald told me in an interview a few years ago that his proudest achievement in the Senate was his work to kill a $13 billion plan to expand Chicago's O'Hare airport. The plan would have required seizing dozens of private homes, and federalizing the project would have shut out local input about how it would be implemented.

It's interesting to contrast Fitzgerald's proudest moment to what former party leader Hastert—who led the charge to oust Fitzgerald—considers his proudest achievements as the longest-serving speaker in the House of Representatives: In an interview with the Associated Press shortly before he stepped down, Hastert listed a $300 million bailout for Chicago-based United Airlines, an $800 million grant from the federal government to help Illinois government cover its budget shortfall (brought on by excessive spending), and a $16 billion Pentagon pork project to lease modified jetliners as fuel tankers, a boon to the Boeing plant just outside Chicago.

In retrospect, Fitzgerald's most notable achievement may have been a stand he took that, oddly enough, contributed to the fall of Blagojevich. In the spring of 2001, a U.S. Attorney vacancy opened up in Illinois. Traditionally, senators who represent the state where there's a U.S. Attorney vacancy are asked to nominate someone for the president to appoint. By custom, senators nominate someone from the state party for these positions—big donors with a law degree, kin or friends of powerful politicians, sometimes even an actually qualified prosecutor.

At the time Fitzgerald was considering whom to nominate, state and federal prosecutors were investigating Illinois' Republican governor, George Ryan, on a wide range of corruption charges. Fitzgerald worried that an up-and-comer from the state party might hesitate to investigate his party's governor, or might face political pressure to go easy on Ryan. So he went out of state, nominating New York prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) to the position.

That decision won Sen. Fitzgerald the wrath of his party, conservative grassroots activists, and Karl Rove, who Fitzgerald says tried to browbeat him into nominating someone with more party loyalty (a bit of a foreshadowing of the coming scandal with the politicization of the Justice Department). It even won Fitzgerald contempt from Chicago newspaper columnists, who scolded him for not putting a native up for the job.

Sen. Fitzgerald's instincts were correct. U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald sent Ryan to prison. He'd go on to prosecute Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, and he now heads up the investigation into Blagojevich. He's one of few Bush Justice Department officials to show a contempt for corruption, no matter which party the corrupt official calls home.

I'm a libertarian, so there's plenty on which former Sen. Fitzgerald and I disagree. I'm sure most Democrats feel the same way, and would be hesitant about appointing a Republican to a seat they could just as easily fill with a Democrat—even a Republican who made a habit of undermining his party's leadership.

But what's to lose? Sen. Saxby Chambliss' runoff win in Georgia earlier this month secured the Republicans enough seats to mount a filibuster. The Democrats might even win some public favor if they were willing to recognize the historically low public trust in Congress at the moment, and could set aside partisanship to offer, at least temporarily, the seat to a bona fide clean government guy like Fitzgerald.

I don't know if Fitzgerald even wants the seat. I suspect he doesn't. Which is just another reason why he should have it. I'm of the opinion that the last people to whom we should be giving power are the people who openly clamor for it. But beyond the fulfilling sense of poetic justice that would come with giving the seat to Fitzgerald, he seems to be the one person who could restore some propriety and public trust in the seat—all the more so if he were to retake the seat at the request of the other party.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at reason. This article originally appeared at FoxNews.com.

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  1. I bid bout . . . three fiddy for Obama’s seat!

  2. What’s the word for advice that isn’t asked for and certainly won’t be taken?

  3. I’ve got some advice for Radley: Break me off some o’ dat!

  4. Fitzgerald is principled, he’s frugal with taxpayer money, and he has no tolerance for public corruption.

    …just what we’re looking for.

    bwahahahahahahahah!

  5. Hey, Dem Power Broker,

    I love the way you guys rallied around Blagojevich and accused the prosecutor of a witch hunt.

    It really brought back the good old days of Tom Delay.

  6. and Scooter Libby.

  7. they had been recruiting someone to run against him in the Republican primary for years

    Which shows that principled politicians are almost universally detested by the two party system. They mostly want people who will play their power-monopolizing game.

  8. “It’s not as crazy as it sounds”

    Read: This idea is marginally less crazy than it sounds, but still 99% crazy.

  9. If they give me the seat, I will both move to Chicago and be an amoral corrupt scumbag, which should suit them perfectly.

  10. I love the way you guys rallied around Blagojevich and accused the prosecutor of a witch hunt.

    Wait, that didn’t….

    OH HO HO!!!! You almost got me there, joe.

  11. Nah. We’re a dynasty nation now. Appoint a member of the Daley clan.

  12. I love the way you guys rallied around Blagojevich and accused the prosecutor of a witch hunt.

    We don’t rally around guys who are dumb enough to get caught.

  13. It really brought back the good old days of Tom Delay.

    and Bill Clinton.

    and William Jefferson.

  14. If anyone thinks that Illinois Atty General Lisa Madigan is anything other than another incompetent, corrupt member of the Illinois establishment who got her job through nepotism who is pressing for impeachment for her own political skin and ambition, they’re sadly mistaken. Thing is, there were some pretty good primary opponents for both Blago and Madigan, but they both lost. Of course, Obama supported the establishment candidates, since he still needed establishment support. Hopefully his support of Arne Duncan also means that he’s shedding some of the Illinois machine that backed him now that he no longer needs them.

  15. But he’s a Republican! Even the most corrupt Democrat is better than an honest Republican! That’s what the election was about! This is a black and white world, and the Democrats are the ones in the white hats. Let’s stopping kidding ourselves with this media circus, and just let Blago appoint himself. He would do a far far better job than any (R)-after-his-name puke.

  16. At first glance I thought Mr Balko was advocating _Patrick_ Fitzgerald

    Well at least in this case we know he wasn’t on the take.

  17. It really brought back the good old days of Tom Delay.

    and Bill Clinton.

    and William Jefferson.

    Hey, don’t forget Charlie Rangel!

    Thing is, there were some pretty good primary opponents for both Blago and Madigan, but they both lost. Of course, Obama supported the establishment candidates, since he still needed establishment support.

    Go along to get along. Ethically inert.

  18. So, where can I get “Peter Fitzgerald in 2012” campaign buttons? Or, rather than “Yes, we can” buttons, how about “No, I won’t in 2013” buttons (as in no, I [I being President Fitzgerald] won’t take anymore of the taxpayer’s money to bailout failed businesses, corrupt politicians, and spendthrift state and local governments).

  19. What’s the word for advice that isn’t asked for and certainly won’t be taken?

    I believe that’s called a “Randy Balko.”

  20. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

    Yes it is.

    Chicago Democratic politicians picking a Republican with some integrity, especially with a U.S. Senate where the Democrats are * this * close to the 60 votes needed to shut down filibusters?

    What’s the word for “exactly the opposite of what they want”?

  21. and Bill Clinton.

    I KNOW you didn’t just compare Ken Starr to Patrick Fitzgerald and Ronnie Earle. Because that would be silly. Or were you referring to Starr’s universally-respected predecessor and successor, the latter of which actually imposed the sanctions on Clinton?

    and William Jefferson. Yeah, you mean the guy who was stripped of his committee seats, roundly mocked throughout the left-leaning media, and nearly kicked out of Congress? I don’t remember, how many times did William Jefferson win re-election as Majority Leader after his scandal broke?

    If anyone thinks that Illinois Atty General Lisa Madigan is anything other than another incompetent, corrupt member of the Illinois establishment who got her job through nepotism who is pressing for impeachment for her own political skin and ambition, they’re sadly mistaken. They certainly are, as Lisa Madigan is pressing for removal by the Supreme Court as an alternative to impeachment.

    Hey, don’t forget Charlie Rangel! Rangel’s catching a lot of heat in Left Blogostan.

    Chicago Democratic politicians picking a Republican with some integrity, especially with a U.S. Senate where the Democrats are * this * close to the 60 votes needed to shut down filibusters? Actually, with Blagojevich out of the way, the appointment would be made by the goo-goo, reformist Lt. Governor.

  22. Actually, with Blagojevich out of the way, the appointment would be made by the goo-goo, reformist Lt. Governor.

    So? Is there really any doubt in your mind that the seat will go to a Democrat?

    I expect it and I promise to mail you ten dollars if Pat Quinn appoints a Republican.

  23. Even the most corrupt Democrat is better than an honest Republican! That’s what the election was about!

    Is this seriously suggesting McCain was in some way an honest Republican? That’s hilarious. It looked like a race between a corrupt Democrat and corrupt Republican and who could win most corrupt elected official of November 4.

  24. zoltan – not that I am a defender of either of those two yahoos, but “corrupt” is definitely not the term I would apply to either one of them.

    Unprincipled? Yes. Mish-mash of politically expedient beliefs? Sure.

    But corruption? No.

  25. Good point, TAO. There’s definitely a difference, it’s just my sloppy vocabulary.

  26. Is this seriously suggesting McCain was in some way an honest Republican?

    I see that in your rush to be insulted by the suggestion that not all memberse of the Democrat Party are lilly white exemplars of purity, you forgot to take into account the context of my post. If you had, you would have known that I was suggesting that Fitzgerald was more honest than Blagolyingbich.

    Sheesh.

  27. TAO,

    So? Is there really any doubt in your mind that the seat will go to a Democrat?

    No, but my comment was about the statement that the pick will be made by “Chicago Democratic politicians.” Just clearing up that the pick will not be made a Chicago machine guy.

    Brandybuck, if you wanted to make a point about Fitzgerald and Blagojevich, you shouldn’t haven’t addded the snark about “that’s what this election was about!” YOU made it about Obama and McCain, so don’t go sniping at zoltan for noticing.

  28. I’m not sure where things stand with the appointment, but I just want to say that I could come up with, maybe, half a million bucks, if that would do it. And I’m not a republican.

    I’m just sayin’. Call me.

    CB

  29. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the Illinois Democratic political machine to install an honest person in the US Senate. They probably can’t find one in their own midst, and nominating a Republican is a non-starter.

  30. William Jefferson…nearly kicked out of Congress…

    He was almost, but not quite, crooked enough for the Democrats in Congress. nuff said.

  31. joe, I seem to recall Nancy Pelosi going apeshit when the FBI executed a judicially-authorized search warrant for Jefferson’s House office.

    As for Clinton, your response shows the left is still circling the wagons round Cigar Willie.

  32. Not crazy to say he’s perfect for the job. Just crazy if you think it could happen.

    About as likely as a Palin/Hillary ticket in 2012.

  33. Patrick Fitzgerald is a political hack. Why didn’t he wait till a Senate candidate was named before indicting Blago? Was he afraid the net might catch too many high ranking Democrats? Maybe Obama. Why do you think the Dems want Blago gone? They usually circle the wagons. He indicted Libby on a stupid process crime, but he couldn’t wait to end this investigation. The real story is how this investigation was cut short to mitigate damage to the president elect and Democrats.

  34. tomt, fitzgerld arrested blago because the trib printed an article about the investigation on the day fitzgerald arrested him. Fitz tried to get them to hold back but the decide to go ahead. Blame the trib if you blame anyone.

    Mr Balko, as a former IL resident I whole-heartedly agree with your suggestion, but it has zero chance of happening. As you said Fitz pissed off pretty much every politician and political group in IL. He might win if he ran again, but hed have to put his own money again, and nobody sane would pay for the punishment a second time? Also, there is no Boeing plant outside of Chicago, but their corporate headquarters are in Chicago.

  35. I think Blako makes some great points, but I have to disagree with his assessment of Patrick Fitzgerald. He may not be afraid to prosecute everyone, but many of his tactics are as unsavory as the subjects of his corruption investigations.

  36. Is this seriously suggesting McCain was in some way an honest Republican?

    McCain is a big government asshole. Having said that, I don’t know anyone who’s suggested that he is corrupt.

  37. I love the way you guys rallied around Blagojevich and accused the prosecutor of a witch hunt.

    It really brought back the good old days of Tom Delay.

    Yeah. Except that unlike Blago, DeLay was never guilty of anything.

  38. DeLay was a K Street asshole. He was one of those smart enough not to get caught, at least stay caught.

    But joe’s an asshole too for equating him with Blago. “sputter… sputter… HEY LOOK OVER THERE!”

  39. “I believe that’s called a ‘Randy Balko.'”

    That’s what Radley’s wife calls him after a couple of bloody marys…

  40. Never voted for FitzGerald because I disagreed with him on so many issues, but I always respected his integrity.

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