CHICAGO - An unwavering Gov. Rod Blagojevich served notice yesterday that he has no intention of quitting over his corruption arrest, declaring with an almost Churchillian flourish: "I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath. I have done nothing wrong."
The forceful, three-minute speech marked the first time Blagojevich has directly addressed the allegations since his arrest 10 days earlier. With it, he made it clear that removing him from office could be uglier and more drawn-out that anyone imagined just a week ago, when his career appeared to be in its final hours and nearly the entire political establishment seemed to be holding a death watch.
"I'm not going to quit a job the people hired me to do because of false accusations and a political lynch mob," a composed and deliberate-sounding Blagovich said at his downtown Chicago office building. He took no questions from reporters and immediately left the room after wishing his listeners, "Merry Christmas, happy holidays."
The 52-year-old Democrat is charged with scheming to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat for big campaign contributions or a lucrative job for himself. Prosecutors built their case on Blagojevich's wiretapped conversations.
"I'm here to tell you right off the bat that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing, that I intend to stay on the job, and I will fight this thing every step of the way," Blagojevich said.
Acknowledging his political isolation, he recited the opening lines of the stirring poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling, a writer Winston Churchill was also fond of quoting: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . "
What he hopes to accomplish by staying in office appears unclear. Blagojevich appears to have no political support, the Illinois House having voted 113-0 last week to assemble an impeachment committee, and his ability to govern has been crippled.
Republican state Sen. Dale Righter said that if Blagojevich manages to escape impeachment, his governing would be limited to signing legislation, directing his agencies and other "housekeeping stuff." Blagojevich will not be able to work with lawmakers or energize the public to support his ideas, Righter said.
After the speech, disappointed Republicans argued that if Blagojevich cannot be dislodged right away, he should at least be disarmed. They called on the Democrats in the Legislature to hold a special election to fill the Senate seat, stripping Blagojevich of the power to make the appointment.
"Anything short of resignation today from the governor was unacceptable," said Illinois GOP chairman Andy McKenna.
Even before the speech, Blagojevich's lawyer, Ed Genson, a hard-charging Chicago criminal-defense attorney, had made it plain the governor would not go down without a fight. *