Blagojevich beats Ryan

by Jeff Fleischer

(Medill News Service / Freeport Journal-Standard, November 5, 2002)


The party’s over. The Republican Party in the governor’s mansion, that is.

For the first time in 26 years, Illinois voters have put a Democrat in the state’s top office. U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday handily defeated his Republican rival, Attorney General Jim Ryan.

With 77 percent of the statewide precincts reporting, Blagojevich had 56 percent of the vote to Ryan’s 42 percent. The 45-year-old Chicago congressman becomes the first Democrat to win the governor’s office since Daniel Walker in 1972.

Blagojevich spoke to his supporters at Finkel & Sons Steel Co. warehouse, 2011 N. Southport, where his late father worked.

“It’s not easy to break a 30-year habit,” he said. “But this election, ladies and gentlemen, is not a partisan win. It is a bipartisan call to action.

“Tomorrow will not be like today,” Blagojevich said. “The people of this great democracy have spoken. They have demanded change, and we are going to give them change.”

From his campaign headquarters at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, Ryan conceded the race shortly before 10 p.m.

“This was a tough climate for Republicans and he [Blagojevich] ran a tough campaign,” Ryan told his supporters. “You do your best and you leave the rest to God. I did my best. I worked hard. I wished the outcome would have been different, not just for me but for you. But it didn’t, and I accept that.”

The 56-year-old attorney general wished Blagojevich well and asked his supporters to give the governor-elect a round of applause. “This was a tough year for Republicans, but keep your heads up, keep your chins up… . The Republican Party is more resilient than me or any of us. … The Republican Party will bounce back.”

But it was the Democrats who rebounded after years of frustration in state politics. Blagojevich’s victory was fueled by a huge victory margin in Chicago and a surprisingly comfortable lead in suburban Cook County.

In the Cook County suburbs, Blagojevich won 52.4 percent of the vote, defeating Ryan by about 50,000 votes. In Chicago, where voter turnout topped 52 percent, the Democrat won nearly eight of every 10 votes cast.

Blagojevich and running mate Pat Quinn, a former state treasurer and consumer advocate, fared especially well in Chicago’s predominantly African-American wards, where they consistently won 95 percent of the vote.

David Wilhelm, a senior adviser to Blagojevich, credited the strong black turnout, which was among the highest in the city. “We had goals [in the black wards] and by 2 p.m. we had 200 percent of our goals achieved,” he said.

In fact, Blagojevich fared much better in Chicago’s black wards than in his own backyard. In the 21st Ward on the far South Side, the Democrat won nearly 20,000 votes, about 95 percent of those cast. By contrast, in the 33rd Ward on the Northwest Side, he won 8,000 votes, with about 80.5 percent of the votes cast. Dick Mell, the congressman’s father-in-law, is the ward’s alderman.

U. S. Rep. Bobby Rush, whose district includes Chicago’s South Side, said African Americans made a big difference in the election. “Rod campaigned quite vigorously in the African-American wards and they really responded to his message,” Rush said.

Quinn, a longtime maverick Democrat, put the victory in perspective. “I was there 30 years ago downstate, to see the last Democratic governor sworn in, and it’s been a long time between drinks.” He called it “a great victory for grassroots, citizen action. It’s a big job ahead of us.”

Blagojevich had been the race’s front-runner since March, when he narrowly won a three-way Democratic primary. Thanks to a surprisingly strong turnout downstate, he held off former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and former Attorney General Roland Burris.

Blagojevich held a substantial financial edge against Ryan reversing the Republican Party’s traditional fund-raising advantage. That allowed Blagojevich to get his message on the airwaves first and open a lead he never relinquished.

The race for governor took on an increasingly negative tone in recent weeks. Ryan tried painting his opponent as a Chicago machine politician because of Blagojevich’s connection to his father-in-law, Ald. Richard Mell (33rd).

In turn, Blagojevich questioned Ryan for not taking an active role in investigating the licenses-for-bribes scandal that tainted current Gov. George Ryan and for his role in the Rolando Cruz prosecution. Cruz was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985 for the murder of Jeanine Nicarico, but DNA evidence cleared him in 1995.

Recent polls showed Ryan chipping away at the Democrat’s lead, but in the end, it was too little too late.

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