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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How much is a Senate seat worth?

A lifetime ago when I was working on Wall Street, a coworker once commented, in reference to John Walker, the U.S. Navy man convicted of spying for the Soviets, "Can you believe he was doing this for thirty, forty thousand dollars a shot? I mean come on. I could see doing it for half a million, but to sell your country out for measly thirty grand?"

In all fairness, I don't think my coworker had it in him to become a Soviet spy. He was just trying to appear cool and sophisticated and big-time, the way teen-agers do. (Wall Street is populated by old teen-agers.) So I won't editorialize about Wall Street greed and corruption.

But I was reminded of the comment by all the outraged harrumphing that has gone on in the past twenty-four hours about Illinois Governor Blagojevich's attempted sale of a U.S. Senate seat. Not one commentator has remarked how cheaply the governor was hoping to sell the seat for. He was evidently hoping to either be promised a lucrative post-governorship job heading up a nonprofit (these generally pay in the mid-six figures), or to get his wife some corporate board memberships totaling maybe $150,000, or a campaign contribution in the neighborhood of half a million.

Blagojevich's exact words were, "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden. And I'm not just giving it up for fuckin' nothing."

Well, maybe not nothing, Blago, but next to nothing. Or maybe you just haven't checked the price of gold recently. For purposes of comparison, Jon Corzine spent $70 million campaigning for his Senate seat from New Jersey. Hillary spent a like amount for her Senate run in 2000. John Thune spent $38 million to unseat Tom Daschle in 2004 (who knew South Dakota was so expensive?). The unfortunate Michael Huffington spent $25 million just to lose a Senate race from California. And they all had to undergo the indignity of an actual campaign to boot.

If Blago had had more sense, rather than turn to the usual suspects, he should have just gone to a billionaire (there are several in Chicago) and said, for five million it's yours, and you don't even have to kiss any babies. Surely a Sam Zell or one of the Pritzkers would have ponied up. And if they hadn't wanted the office for themselves, they could undoubtedly have come up with a suitable proxy. Owning your own United States Senator for just five mil is a steal for a billionaire.

True, a governor would be expected to appoint someone with a suitable resume, i.e., someone with an entire career full of political jobs, not just a businessman. But in that vast morass known as the Daley machine, there must have been someone with deep enough pockets to make Blago a rich man.

Then again, maybe he was setting his sights high. Where Blago's headed, the common unit of currency is a single cigarette.

Blago had evidently pushed to have the editorialists who had savaged him in the Chicago Tribune be fired by the owner of the paper, who also had a financial interest in Wrigley Field, which Blago exerted some control over. At one point in the FBI recordings, Blago's chief of Staff John Harris can be heard telling Blago, "The Trib guy gets the message. He's very sensitive to the issue."

Blago replied, "Sensitive? My asshole is sensitive. I want these fuckers fucked."

Again, given where he's headed, Blago's comment may yet prove quite prescient.

Addendum: My son points out that Blago will probably do time at a minimum security facility, where he needn't worry about the sensitive portion of his anatomy. True enough. (Though if real justice were to be served, he should by all rights experience what the Illinois electorate did.)

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