A former top aide to Rod Blagojevich once impersonated the then-governor to “declare a state of emergency” on a federal Department of Homeland Security disaster drill conference call, perhaps foretelling the fate of Illinois under the imprisoned former governor, a new book says.
Former Deputy Gov. Bradley Tusk, currently an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who served under Blagojevich from 2003 to 2006, describes the scene in his new book, “The Fixer,” about his life and the intersection of politics and startups. His five-year work as Uber’s first political strategist followed his career in Illinois government.
Tusk’s book is published by Portfolio/Penguin Random House and will go on sale Sept. 18. Billed as a must-read for aspiring entrepreneurs, it also details what he calls “the lessons startups need to learn to punch back and survive the clutches of politics.”
It also adds to the lore of the now-imprisoned and disgraced former governor who, joined by his wife, Patti, have lobbied President Donald Trump for a commutation of his 14-year federal corruption sentence. The Tribune was provided an advance copy.
Tusk only devotes 20 pages, or three chapters, to his time working as deputy governor — and he has few kind words to say about Blagojevich’s work ethic. With the governor often AWOL, Tusk writes that he largely ran Illinois government as a 29-year-old New Yorker who had some policy and communications background. He previously had worked for Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Tusk writes that Blagojevich had “superior” innate political skills but “in many ways, Rod exemplified the distinction between the skill set needed to run for office and the skill set needed to serve in office.”
“He was an incredible public speaker. Charismatic. Charming. Funny. Self-deprecating. … His retail political skills were better than anyone I’d ever seen (except maybe Bill Clinton),” Tusk wrote.
In a footnote, Tusk said Blagojevich possessed “the vote-getting gene,” a trait “either you’re born with or not. And it’s not solely based on charisma or looks — it’s more intrinsic than that. Bill Clinton had it. Hillary Clinton does not. George W. Bush had it. His father and brother did not. Rod had it in spades.”
But as far as actually doing the job of governor, Tusk likened Blagojevich to Robert Redford in “The Candidate” asking after winning office: “What do we do now?”
“Rod possessed none of the skills, work ethic, discipline, integrity, or focus to perform any real work once he won office,” Tusk wrote.
He described a typical Blagojevich workday as “a loose mix of a few phone calls, watching ‘Sports Center,’ reading long biographies of Napoleon, preparing for a run, going for a run, stretching after the run and then showering for at least 90 minutes after that.”
A few months into the job, Tusk described, a “livid” Blagojevich, angry that his father-in-law, then-Ald. Dick Mell, had sent out a fundraising letter noting that the governor would be the headliner. Blagojevich had not agreed to participate.
“Ranting and raving. Yelling and screaming. Shutting down the fundraiser to show Mell who was boss was the only thing that mattered. Which, on a normal day would have been fine — it’s not like Rod was busy running the state anyway,” Tusk wrote.
“But this wasn’t a normal day. I had gone over to Rod’s house to make sure he joined a conference call with (then-U.S.) Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and eight other governors. Since we were only 18 months removed from 9/11, tensions were still high. The federal government conducted a series of tabletop exercises to simulate everyone’s roles during an actual terrorist attack,” Tusk wrote.
As Tusk recalled, with the governors’ phone drill with Ridge only a half-hour away, Blagojevich worked to have his donors boycott Mell’s event, ripped Mell’s fundraising letter into a dozen pieces and threw them down the stairs, then went downstairs and started slamming doors.
“Hey. We need to dial into this call,” Tusk said.
“What call?” Blagojevich responded.
“What do you mean what call? The call with Tom Ridge. Why do you think I’m here,” Tusk said.
“I’m not doing it,” Blagojevich said. As the two went back and forth, time for the call neared and Blagojevich told Tusk, “You do it.”
Tusk got on the phone, prepared to explain that Blagojevich had been called away for an emergency, but the drill had already started.
“This wasn’t an informal discussion. It was a planned military exercise,” Tusk wrote. “Ridge was outlining the simulated crisis and asking governors to declare a state of emergency. He went through the states. Voices were saying yes.”
When it came Blagojevich’s turn on the call, Tusk said, “I deepened my voice a little, which didn’t even really make sense since it wasn’t like Rod’s voice was deeper than mine in the first place.”
“Yes,” Tusk said as Blagojevich. “I declare a state of emergency.”
Tusk said he was not required to make any other comments during the call and no one noticed that he was not Illinois’ chief executive.
Tusk also recalled a time that Blagojevich refused to engage in a post-legislative session review of bills passed by lawmakers because the governor had to go see his tailor and pick out fabrics for three new suits. Tusk said none of the 20 bills were “controversial” and so he used the autopen to sign or veto them with Blagojevich’s signature, a process which became routine.
“This guy is totally checked out. Someone’s gotta run the place. And if no one’s going to tell us what we can and can’t do, we might as well do as much as we can,” Tusk said of his work under Blagojevich.
In the book, Tusk recounts two potential reasons he had been tapped as an unknown outsider to serve as deputy governor — one reason benign and the other not so benign.
Tusk said the benign reason was his relationship with onetime Blagojevich loyalist John Wyma, who had served as Schumer’s chief of staff. Taking the post would be a career-making job and he had a lot of “good names” to back him, he said. Wyma later helped the federal prosecution against Blagojevich and testified against him.
Tusk said the less-benign explanation came to him after Blagojevich’s indictment in 2009.
“I was still a naive kid. I didn’t understand the cesspool of Illinois politics. I didn’t know the players. And in retrospect, a few things were conspicuously absent from my job portfolio: hiring, grants and contracts,” he wrote.
“If you’re looking to execute a massive pay-to-play scheme — auctioning off jobs, contracts and grants to the biggest campaign donors — it’s all you care about. Rod and his cronies figured they could do what they wanted — and let me worry about running the state — and I’d never notice,” he wrote.
But, Tusk wrote, he did notice in one instance which also required him to testify at Blagojevich’s trials. Tusk said the governor was holding up grant money for a school in the congressional district of then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago’s mayor, because Emanuel’s agent brother, Ari, owed Blagojevich a fundraiser.
Tusk said he did not contact Emanuel but spoke with Wyma and the governor’s legal counsel to warn them of the pay-to-play request and he resigned as deputy governor a month later. The fundraiser was never held.
“I was able to preserve my own freedom and reputation,” Tusk wrote. “It’s never fun fighting with your boss, especially when you work for someone a little (well, maybe a lot) crazy like Rod Blagojevich. But the alternative was far, far worse.”
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August 30, 2018 at 11:49AM