RAVENSWOOD MANOR — An unapologetic Rod Blagojevich painted himself as a victim of a corrupt system in his first public appearance Wednesday.
After thanking President Donald Trump, who commuted his 14-year prison sentence after eight years Tuesday, Blagojevich began railing against what he called an unfair criminal justice system and the prosecutors who put him behind bars.
“From beginning to end, this was persecution parading as prosecution,” Blagojevich said, adding a message to Illinoisians who voted for him: “I didn’t let you down.”
Flanked by his wife, Patti, and daughters, Amy and Annie outside his Ravenswood Manor home, Blagojevich said “it’s been a long, long journey. I’m bruised, I’m battered and I’m bloody,” the former governor said, dabbing blood from his chin.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve shaved with a normal razor,” he said. “A lot’s changed in the nearly eight years since I’ve been here.”
Patti, looking giddy about her husband’s return, apologized about his tardiness to his own press conference, which started about 30 minutes late. She said he couldn’t find his socks.
“When I left home, so long ago, Amy, our older daughter, was a sophomore in high school,” he said. Amy is now two years out of college and has earned her master’s degree. “Annie, our younger daughter, was about eight years old when I left, now she’s 16 and now she has her driver’s license … My baby’s growing up so fast.”
Almost immediately, Blagojevich said he has “10,000 reasons” to thank Trump.
“How do you properly thank someone who was given back the freedom that was stolen from you?” he said, noting that Trump is a Republican and he was a Democrat. “President Trump is a man who is tough and outspoken, but he also has a kind heart.”
He added that he was a “Trumpocrat,” and if he has the ability to vote for the president, he will.
Blagojevich also thanked other notable figures by name: Rev. Jesse Jackson, who lobbied for his clemency; his “friend” and former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who served two years in prison for fraud; and his father-in-law, former Ald. Dick Mell, who Blagojevich didn’t speak to during his years in prison.
Blagojevich also thanked “mystery man” Mark Vargas, a tech entrepreneur and conservative columnist who helped secure his commutation.
Crowds filled the intersection of Sunnyside Avenue and Richmond Street Wednesday ahead of the planned 11 a.m. news conference, including famous Cubs fan Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers.
Blagojevich spoke for about 20 minutes. He did not take questions from reporters.
Over the course of his speech, Blagojevich recited poetry, referencing Minnie Louise Haskins’ “The Gate of the Year”; quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and repeated Bible scriptures in English and Spanish.
Blagojevich called the 6-foot by 8-foot cells prisoners shared “like tombs,” where he slept on the top bunk. During dark moments, he thought of his wife, Patti, who was fighting for him to be freed.
“I would remember what a gracious thing it’s been to walk through life with you,” he said. “Thank you for waiting.”
At times during his speech, Patti whispered talking points in his ear.
Blagojevich: The prison reformer?
Blagojevich said he wasn’t the only prisoner helped by Trump, noting that the president granted clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, the Tennessee grandmother who served 21 years of a life sentence in prison on a non-violent drug offense.
He said her case shows how the federal criminal justice system, empowered by the 1994 federal crime bill, “disproportionately discriminates against African-Americans and people of color” by oversentencing them.
He said Trump’s First Step Act passed in 2018, which shortens mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, begins the process to reform “racist” sentencing rules.
Touting his accomplishments as governor, he said he hopes to use his experience in prison to reform a “broken, and I believe in many cases, corrupt criminal justice system.”
“Underdogs” being threatened with long sentences confess to crimes they did not commit, he said.
“Wildly unfair disparities for the same offenses are not uncommon,” Blagojevich said. “In way too many cases, way too many non-violent offenders are given way longer prison sentences than violent offenders and sex offenders.”
He said no one is doing more to fix the system than Trump and his son-in-law, advisor Jared Kushner.
“I’m returning home after a long exile, a freed political prisoner,” he said.
The Wednesday press conference came one day after Rod Blagojevich and his family got the news they’ve been waiting on for years: His 14-year prison sentence for corruption is over, officially halted by Trump.
By late Tuesday night, he was back in Chicago, headed for home. He landed at O’Hare about 11:40 p.m. and was greeted by throngs of reporters.
Blagojevich walked through the media scrum and did not stop to talk, although he signed a couple autographs before getting into a white SUV just after midnight.
Asked how it felt to be back in Chicago, he said: “There’s no place like home.”
He also signaled what’s to come in his future public comments, saying: ‘I didn’t do the things they said I did. And they lied on me.”
And he showed some of the charisma he was known for on the campaign trail and during his time as governor, saying how he was concerned for WGN’s cameraman walking backward through the airport.
“Ted, how you been these last eight years? I missed ya,” Blagojevich said, according to WGN’s video.
To another reporter, he said: “He’s [President Trump] got obviously a big fan in me. If you’re asking what my party affiliation is … I’m a Trumpocrat.”
By the time he got on the plane, he was sitting next to ABC Chicago’s Chuck Goudie. And CBS Chicago’s Dana Kozlov was on the same flight.
Blagojevich has been in federal prison in Colorado since 2012, after being convicted on multiple corruption charges, including trying to sell off the U.S. Senate seat of Barack Obama, who was vacating it after being elected president in 2008.
After two trials, Blagojevich was convicted and sentenced. During his media blitz trying to win public support before his conviction, he ended up as Trump’s guest on “Celebrity Apprentice.”
“Rod, you’re fired,” the future president told the former governor.
Ever since Blagojevich exhausted his legal appeals and settled into his sentence in Colorado, Patti Blagojevich has publicly lobbied for his early release, banking on Trump’s public disdain for some federal prosecutors and his personal connection with Blagojevich to bring a pardon or the commutation Trump delivered Tuesday.
“Yes, we have commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “He served eight years in jail. That’s a long time. And I watched his wife on television. I don’t know him very well, met him a couple of times. He was on, for a short while, on the ‘Apprentice’ years ago. He seemed like a very nice person, don’t know him.
“But he served eight years in jail. There’s a long time to go. Many people disagreed with the sentence. He’s a Democrat, he’s not a Republican. It was a prosecution by the same people, Comey, Fitzpatrick. The same group. Very far from his children. They’re growing older. They are going to high school now. They rarely get to see their father outside of an orange uniform. I saw that and did commute his sentence.
“So he’ll be able to go back home with his family after serving eight years in jail. That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence in my opinion — and in the opinion of others.”