Rahm Emanuel talked with governor’s office about who should fill Obama’s Senate seat
Chief of staff for Obama had list of names
By Bob Secter
Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Barack Obama‘s pick to be White House chief of staff, had conversations with Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration about who would replace Obama in the U.S. Senate, the Tribune has learned.
The revelation does not suggest Obama’s new gatekeeper was involved in any talk of dealmaking involving the seat. But it does help fill in the gaps surrounding a question that Obama was unable or unwilling to answer this week: Did anyone on his staff have contact with Blagojevich about his choice for the Senate seat?
Blagojevich and John Harris, his former chief of staff, face federal charges in an alleged shakedown involving the vacant Senate seat, which Illinois law grants the governor sole authority to fill.
Obama said Thursday he had never spoken to Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy and was “confident that no representatives” of his had engaged in any dealmaking over the seat with the governor or his team. He also pledged Thursday that in the “next few days” he would explain what contacts his staff may have had with the governor’s office about the Senate vacancy.
Emanuel, who has long been close to both Blagojevich and Obama, has refused to respond to questions about any involvement he may have had with the Blagojevich camp over the Senate pick. A spokeswoman for Emanuel also declined to comment Friday.
One source confirmed that communications between Emanuel and the Blagojevich administration were captured on court-approved wiretaps.
Another source said that contact between the Obama camp and the governor’s administration regarding the Senate seat began the Saturday before the Nov. 4 election, when Emanuel made a call to the cell phone of Harris. The conversation took place around the same time press reports surfaced about Emanuel being approached about taking the high-level White House post should Obama win.
Emanuel delivered a list of candidates who would be “acceptable” to Obama, the source said. On the list were Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, Illinois Veterans Affairs director Tammy Duckworth, state Comptroller Dan Hynes and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Chicago, the source said. All are Democrats.
Sometime after the election, Emanuel called Harris back to add the name of Democratic Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan to the approved list, the source said.
Blagojevich and Harris, who resigned his state post Friday, are charged with plotting to sell the selection of Obama’s replacement in exchange for lucrative jobs or campaign cash for the governor. Among other things, a government affidavit filed with the charges claimed that Blagojevich had kicked around the idea of using his Senate selection to leverage an appointment to an ambassadorship or Cabinet post in the Obama administration.
Federal authorities have not suggested Obama or his team knew about Blagojevich’s alleged schemes.
In an interview, Schakowsky said she spoke to Emanuel on Thursday and he seemed unfazed by the controversy.
Schakowsky also spoke of a conversation she had with Emanuel shortly after he was named chief of staff. She said she called Emanuel him “to get some intelligence” on whether Obama might approve of her selection as senator.
“He indicated that the president-elect would be fine with certain people and I was one of them,” Schakowsky said.
Schakowsky said it was natural for Obama to take an interest in the selection process for his Senate seat. “It makes perfect sense for the president-elect or his people to have some interaction about filling the seat he was vacating,” she said.
Though now working full-time on Obama’s transition, Emanuel has yet to resign his congressional seat. Illinois law has a different process for filling vacant House seats than Senate seats. When Emanuel resigns, a special election will be held for his replacement.
One alleged scheme outlined in the charges against Blagojevich involves the special election for Emanuel’s seat. The government affidavit said Blagojevich and others were recorded talking about an unnamed “president-elect adviser” concerned about the election for Emanuel’s congressional seat who might help the governor land a new job at a non-profit organization.
Tribune reporter David Heinzmann contributed to this report.