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Governor out to fix image
Mailings, trips hint at intense campaign
By Rick Pearson
Tribune political reporter
Published June 26, 2005
With a series of targeted mailings to fellow Democrats plugging his accomplishments, and recent visits to southern Illinois to dispense state grants, the summer construction season to rebuild Gov. Rod Blagojevich's image has officially begun.
Though the first-term Democratic governor has not made his re-election plans official, Blagojevich's move to connect with his core supporters and try to heal rifts in what has been an unfriendly Downstate region are indicative of the blueprint a candidate follows to gear up for an intensive campaign season.
Blagojevich also is trying to re-educate Democratic leaders and activists about his agenda during a traditionally slow time for political news. This summer has been a little different, with the stirrings of as many as eight potential Republican challengers.
"People want the facts. They want to know what their government is doing for them. They want to know what the results are," said Blagojevich campaign strategist Peter Giangreco. "Arming these opinion leaders with the facts is important so when someone is critical or just doesn't know [the record], they can tick off these facts that are so important."
Coming off a legislative session that was at times filled with contention over Blagojevich's budget strategy and a steady drumbeat of criticism over investigations into accusations of cronyism and mismanagement within the administration, the governor is trying to seize the initiative to repair his standing among voters.
A Tribune poll coinciding with the last month of the legislative session in May found Blagojevich's job approval with voters at a low of 35 percent; only 33 percent of voters said they wanted to see him re-elected.
But in 14,000 letters sent last week to Democratic Party officials, labor leaders, ministers, campaign volunteers and donors, the Blagojevich campaign touts the governor's first term as "an untold success story happening here in Illinois that the press and the pundits have failed to report."
The letter lays out a record of expanded health-care availability, improved education funding without higher taxes, efforts to import prescription drugs, a boost in the minimum wage, plans to improve tollway traffic flow, a reduced government payroll and increases in state employment. It says Blagojevich is "delivering on his promise to shake up the system and get state government back on the side of working Illinoisans."
That letter is signed by Chicago Democratic Congressmen Bobby Rush and Luis Gutierrez, as well as longtime Blagojevich loyalist state Sen. Carol Ronen (D-Chicago) and Barb Brown, a veteran Democratic Party official from Downstate Chester.
A separate letter, signed by Ronen and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), promotes Blagojevich's stand on requiring pharmacies to fill birth-control prescriptions. The letter, which attacks "right-wing conservatives" such as Pat Robertson and Alan Keyes, was sent to 9,000 potential donors through the mailing lists of the political action committees of Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League.
The letters come on the heels of a road trip the governor made almost as soon as the spring legislative session ended. In a swing through southern Illinois, he passed out grants to aid local businesses, increase funding for mass transit, and put state funds into the construction of a minor-league baseball stadium and into a state fish and wildlife area.
The visits, which received prominent coverage in the local media, were designed to offset the belief among Downstate voters that Blagojevich was too Chicago-centric in his priorities as governor. Although Blagojevich narrowly won the 2002 Democratic primary on the strength of Downstate votes, more than half of those voters polled last month said they had an unfavorable view of Blagojevich's job performance.
Blagojevich's potential Republican opponents have been seizing on the governor's low popularity levels among Downstate audiences in hopes of creating a regional spark to their campaigns. But Blagojevich's travels indicate he is ready to respond.
"With the record we have, we don't really care what the Republicans have to say," Giangreco said. "They'll attack and throw mud and slap each other around."