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Vendettas and Shady Ethics: Meet the Candidates to Replace Obama

Rep. Luis Gutierrez speaks at a press conference with now President-Elect Barack Obama in March 2007. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP PhotoBarack Obama’s impending move to the White House has brought embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich new-found popularity, at least among those vying to replace Obama in the Senate.

State law gives the Democratic governor the power to name Obama’s successor through 2010. Blagojevich, whose administration faces multiple federal investigations, quickly found that there is no shortage of applicants.

“I’ve never had more friends than I do today,” Blagojevich said at a news conference in Chicago just after the election. “We are going to be deliberate and very thoughtful and take our time to do it right.”

But a look at Blagojevich’s options shows that potential ethical lapses and political vendettas might make the “right” replacement difficult to identify.

For starters, a leading candidate, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), once lobbied (PDF) Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to back a controversial multimillion-dollar real estate deal for a campaign contributor, a Chicago Tribune investigation found. Shortly before, the contributor had lent Gutierrez $200,000. The congressman’s lobbying effort now is under “federal scrutiny,” the investigation found.

Gutierrez, widely cited as a potential selection, has talked to Blagojevich about his interest in the appointment. Gutierrez “is a major contender and has a good relationship with the governor,” Dick Simpson, a former city alderman and an expert on local politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told us.

Concerns about Gutierrez’s close relationship with several land developers—he has entered into real estate deals with them, and they have helped finance his campaigns—will not prevent him from receiving Obama’s job, Simpson said.

Gutierrez, who just won a 9th term in Congress, told the Tribune that he has never used his position to help developers who do business with him. (We also called Gutierrez’s office but have yet to hear back.)

Gutierrez might not have been considered a leading candidate to fill Obama’s seat if it weren’t for the fact that two other leading candidates are on the outs with Blagojevich.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., another Democrat from Chicago, has openly coveted the position. In fact, a Jackson spokesman was handing out press releases at Blagojevich’s news conference, saying the congressman would be “honored and humbled” to replace Obama.

But Jackson and Blagojevich have clashed in the past.

There’s also no love lost between Blagojevich and another much-discussed contender, Lisa Madigan, Illinois’ attorney general. Madigan’s father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, has been called the governor’s “nemesis.” And Lisa Madigan is seen as a chief rival to Blagojevich if he runs for re-election in 2010. (Blagojevich has not announced whether he’ll seek a third term, but he has said he “trusts the people to get it right” and wants Illinois voters to “love me again.”) Madigan said today she sees “less than zero” chance Blagojevich will pick her.

This brings us to close Obama and Blagojevich ally Emil Jones, the recently retired Illinois Senate president. The 73-year-old would be unlikely to seek re-election, which Blagojevich might see as a plus. “It would open up the seat if the governor wanted to run for it in 2010,” Simpson said.

Blagojevich also has not explicitly ruled out nominating himself to the Senate.  He said last week that he is “not interested” in the job. But when pushed, Blagojevich ignored the question, according to the Tribune.

If Blagojevich were to appoint himself, it would be despite a miserable approval rating (13 percent, according to the Tribune‘s latest poll) and multiple federal investigations into how his administration doled out jobs and money. Federal authorities have interviewed Blagojevich twice, and two of his key fundraisers have been indicted for corruption, though the governor has not been charged with any wrongdoing. His office did not return a phone call from us seeking comment.

While Blagojevich has said in a statement that “the calendar won’t dictate our search,” he also has suggested that a final decision likely is due by New Year’s.

Blagojevich also will have to call a special election in his old congressional district to replace Rahm Emuanel, who will become Obama’s chief-of-staff in January.  Among those expressing interest in the gig: Deborah Mell, Blagojevich’s sister-in-law.