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Schakowsky: 'The Governor Can't Govern'

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the nation's slumping economy has forced many businesses to lay off employees, and while cutbacks may be a part of the culture in the corporate world, that's less so in places of worship. In a moment, we're going to hear about how one faith leader is handling that challenge. That's our Faith Matters conversation, and that's in just a few minutes.

But first, our weekly political check. Political leaders in Illinois are threatening to move ahead with impeachment proceedings against embattled Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich. The governor has so far ignored the growing chorus of demands that he step down in the wake of his arrest earlier this week on corruption charges. Blagojevich stands accused of trying to essentially sell his state's vacant seat in the U.S. Senate in exchange for favors and contributions to himself. Illinois congresswoman Jan Schakowsky has been considered a contender for that Senate seat, and she joins us now on the line from her home in Evanston, Illinois. Congresswoman, welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know what? When the governor was first arrested you were actually doing an interview with a news organization. And you said, you know, the authorities had better have a good reason for arresting this man in front of his wife and his children. Now, this was before the U.S. attorney held his press conference reading the charges. Do you think that they had a good reason for arresting him that way?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, it does seem that they do. They were concerned that he would actually move ahead on a number of things, including making an appointment for the U.S. Senate. And so I think they wanted to make sure that that didn't happen. There may have been other ways to have him just come in on his own rather than go to his house. But I think the timing, the fact that it was done that day, can be explained well enough for my taste. Yeah.

MARTIN: You were one of the first people, then, to call for the governor to resign once these charges were made public. Why do you think he should resign?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, because I think the governor can't govern. This has nothing to do with the legal case. I'm not determining whether I feel that he's guilty or - you know, he's innocent until he's proven guilty. But I think that politically, it is impossible now for the governor to really address the many problems that Illinois is facing and to do the job that he needs to do to be the leader. So I think it's time now for him to resign and let the state - right now, we don't really have a governor, and we're missing a senator.

MARTIN: Did you think you were being seriously considered for the seat? Did you have a chance to meet with the governor, and did you ever get any sense of what criteria he was using to fill the seat?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, it was always hard to determine with a single voter what his criteria was going to be. And so, I actually called the governor - he returned my call on November 17th - to determine whether I really was on the list. So he called me and he said, yes, indeed and - that I was under consideration. But in retrospect, I see that - I guess I wasn't because he didn't ask me for anything. So I guess I wasn't really on his list. I was playing a different game, or he was playing a different game.

MARTIN: Was this rumored, was there any hint of this? You know, sometimes people in political circles talk, and there was a lot of conversation, at least back here in Washington, about why he was taking so long to fill that seat since he had to have known at least a couple of weeks before the November election that this was a possibility. And one would have thought that he'd been giving some thought to it. So did you ever have any hint that this was going on?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: No. I had no hint whatsoever, and there was nothing in our conversation even close to some sort of a quid pro quo, and I just figured that he was having a hard time choosing among people that he's worked with for many years, who would be his choice. And I certainly thought that - I was trying to discern what is his self-interest but truly, Michel, I had no idea that every one of the considerations had to do with his own personal gain. I was truly shocked by that when I read the charges.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're speaking with congresswoman Jean Schakowsky from Illinois. We're talking about the scandal involving the Illinois governor and his alleged efforts to sell the vacant Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. And we're talking about how the state's seat should be filled now. Yesterday, we talked with your fellow congressman, Danny K. Davis, also from Illinois. He suggested that some of the governor's more outrageous statements might be just his, what's the word I'm looking for, kind of, well, let's just let him say what he said, and I'll play this short clip for you and see what you think.

(Soundbite of Representative Danny K. Davis)

Representative DANNY K. DAVIS (Democrat, Illinois): Anybody that knows the governor know that he has a tendency to sometimes skywalk in terms of -

MARTIN: What does that mean?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, it means that he talks in kind of a way-out way. I'm saying some of the stuff that I've read, you know, it's like a movie script. It's like it's impossible.

MARTIN: In essence, I think he's saying that he's just talking nonsense. What do you think of that?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, I mean, I think that the thing that people are really pondering now is how could someone in his situation - because he's been under investigation for a number of years now for various pay-to-play schemes where people actually pay to get on boards, etc. - that this governor would think it's possible in 2016, that he could be rehabilitated enough to run for president, or that trading the Senate seat would allow him to get appointed secretary of health and human services, or get an ambassadorship. I mean, these are wild schemes. And I think that even though the governor has a very optimistic personality, he was - seemed to be living in another world.

MARTIN: Your other colleague, Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., has been identified as so-called Candidate Five in the charging document on whose behalf an emissary allegedly offered to raise thousands of dollars for the governor's campaign in exchange for the appointment. And he, of course, vehemently denies that he sent any emissary or he had any knowledge of any of this kind of conduct. Do you believe him?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: I believe congressman Jackson. I think this idea that someone was going to come in and give him $500,000 up front and a million dollars later is in the same category. You know, the only evidence we have for that is what the governor has said, along with a whole string of wild fantasies. And so I have no reason at all to believe that congressman Jackson did anything wrong. The other possibility in the congressman's favor is, well, somebody might have gone to the governor who was trying to be a big shot and made representations, supposedly, in favor of congressman Jackson. But the congressman says he didn't authorize anybody to do it, and I would believe him.

MARTIN: What do you think should happen now to fill the seat?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, the legislature is going into session. There's a number of things. Of course, the governor could resign, and that would be the easiest and the best thing - probably for himself, as well, so he could deal with the charges that have been leveled and the whole criminal case against him. But he could also be impeached, and there are articles of impeachment being readied, and the author of those says it could actually be accomplished within weeks. There's also - the attorney general is pursuing going to the Illinois Supreme Court. When the governor is impeded, that's the word, from doing his job, he can be removed. In which case, the lieutenant governor would become the acting governor of the state of Illinois.

MARTIN: And then that acting governor would then have the authority to fill the seat.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: That's correct.

MARTIN: But do you think that any individual who then appointed the person, would that selection be tainted by this whole process? I mean, some are arguing that really, a special election is the only fair way…

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, that's the other (unintelligible) of the…

MARTIN: To proceed at this point.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: The legislature in Illinois is considering a special election and just taking it out of the hands of any individual and giving it to the people. The lieutenant governor and many are concerned that the seat would be vacant for a long time then. So, you know, the lieutenant governor or the acting governor could appoint an interim while there's a special election. So there are a number of combinations that would get us a new senator rather quickly and even still have a special election.

MARTIN: Would you be willing to run in the special election?

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Oh, I would. I would certainly give it great consideration. I've been making calls and getting calls about that. So I would - you know, it's a situation where no current elected official would have to give up the current seat in order to run for Senate under a special election scenario, and it would be a great honor to fill the seat that Barack Obama has vacated.

MARTIN: There are those who would argue that that seat - forgive me to be blunt about it, but there are those who - Barack Obama was the only African-American serving in the United States Senate and there are some who feel that that seat should - I don't know how you can really argue that, but should, therefore, at least - favorable consideration should be given to an African-American because of that.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, and then, of course, in a special election, that, you know, that's the way it may turn out that the voters would think that. I think that what we need right now is primarily someone who can help pass the agenda that the president, when he's president, President Obama has initiated, and I've long worked on the - a similar agenda. And I think another consideration would be someone, then, who could win the election and then could hold that seat and win it in 2010 which a - so it's a constant election cycle, really.

MARTIN: And finally, so many people were so thrilled at the election of Barack Obama. It was obviously a day of great celebration - not just in Chicago but throughout Illinois, people are so excited to be sending another native son to the presidency. And do you feel that that victory is tainted now by this? Do you feel marked in a way as a...

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: No, I really don't. And I think there, you know, definitely are those kinds of elements in politics, but then there are people like Barack Obama, who get into it for precisely the right reasons. The support for Barack Obama, the way he's handling the transition, is overwhelming around the country. Republicans, Democrats, independents, people are so hopeful, and there is no reason for them not to be. It's unfortunate, that's for sure. And for Illinois, where we've had a string of, shall I say, bad luck with governors, that's the situation. But in general, the country should continue to rejoice in our President-elect Barack Obama.

MARTIN: Jan Schakowsky represents Illinois' 9th Congressional District in the U.S. Congress. She was kind enough to join us from her home in Evanston, Illinois. Congresswoman, thank you so much for taking the time.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: It's been my pleasure. Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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