The gov's 'superstar'

January 2, 2005

BY DAVE MCKINNEY Sun-Times Springfield Bureau Chief

SPRINGFIELD -- At a Washington restaurant called Mr. K's, known for its Peking duck and tuxedo-clad waiters, Rod Blagojevich gathered his closest political friends in early 2001 to begin thinking about the pros and cons of running for governor.

At dinner were his college roommate, Lon Monk, his onetime congressional chief of staff, John Wyma, and an open-collared, twentysomething friend of Wyma's whom the Democratic House member from Chicago did not know, Bradley Tusk.

"What do you all think of a guy who would go to a church in southern Illinois and sing a gospel song, 'Peace in the Valley' or 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord'?" Blagojevich asked the group, testing an offbeat, almost Clintonesque strategy to win Downstate votes. "Would that be a plus or a minus?"

Generally, the group turned thumbs down at the prospect, particularly since this potential candidate was a Democrat with a Chicago accent and no known singing skills. But Tusk broke ranks. "That's interesting," he said. "Under the right circumstances, sure, yeah."

Blagojevich was pleased and intrigued by that response, which he thought seemed to mesh with the way Wyma had described Tusk privately beforehand, as "brilliant, hard-driving and highly intelligent."

The encounter proved to be an early job interview for Tusk. Nearly four years later, he is now at Blagojevich's side as deputy governor, his chief image-maker, dispensing advice, wielding huge clout and shaping virtually every major move of the administration, including its recent attack on violent and sex-filled video games.

'Something different'

"What I picked up from that initial conversation was a willingness by Bradley to do something different, something other than standard operating procedure," Blagojevich recalled. "It wasn't that I was going to do that, but the way he thought about the question was an insight into how he thinks.

"He's not only been an integral part of my administration and a vital cog, but he's been in my view a superstar," the governor said of an aide some compare to President Bush's brass-knuckles strategist, Karl Rove.

Tusk oversees the governor's budget office, his legislative affairs division and the all-important communications shop, a major concentration of power for one staffer that has made him the go-to guy in this administration.

In his $129,996-a-year job, Tusk's mark is on about every big idea to emanate from the governor. Tusk has helped the governor frame the push for Canadian drug imports, state ethics reforms, a fight over pay raises for judges, the proposed elimination of the state Board of Education, changes at the tollway and last summer's nasty state budget impasse.

"If you were to ask me why I like government and why I do this, it's the opportunity to come up with new ideas and initiatives that are interesting," said Tusk, a native of New York and a Mets fan in a Chicago Cubs administration. "There's no point in being in government just to do things the way they've been done. Anybody can do that."

Tusk, 31, has helped put in their place a succession of political straw men -- from price-gouging pharmaceutical companies to free-spending legislators whom the governor once berated as "drunken sailors." One by one, Blagojevich has attempted to knock them down as the news cameras rolled. While it has kept the governor popular among Chicago area voters, the approach has brought contempt and accusations of pandering from many at the Statehouse, particularly Democrats who view Tusk as a prime architect of it all.

"He's a brash New Yorker, in your face, and one of the main reasons the governor has such poor relations with everybody in Springfield. He's a demonizer, a conflict seeker, instead of someone who is conciliatory and reaches out to people," said state Rep. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock).

He's there 'to pick fights'

Franks and the administration have clashed over Blagojevich's move to hike hundreds of business fees to balance the budget and over a scandal that hit the Health Facilities Planning Board, in which Franks' law firm represented a Crystal Lake hospital in the thick of things.

"I think the governor hired Bradley Tusk to get him in the paper and make other people look bad, to pick fights," Franks said. "The governor is getting exactly what he paid for and what he wants. I think it's horrible for the state of Illinois, but it's good for Rod's poll numbers in the short term."

Tusk, a University of Chicago law graduate, barely winces at such criticism. Such friction with lawmakers is dismissed as the inevitable result of attacking "the status quo" and undoing damage Blagojevich's team attributes to George Ryan's tenure as governor.

Served under N.Y. mayors

"We inherited a mess. That mess has forced us to make really hard decisions. The one action that best describes a lot of these decisions is having to say no, and in Springfield, people don't like hearing that. Unfortunately, that's part of the job," Tusk said.

The son of a Russian immigrant father and a New York-born mother, Tusk has served under New York Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg and as communications chief under Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), where Wyma had been chief of staff and brought him aboard.

"Bradley's not afraid to break china, and he does," Wyma said. "He is insistent certain things move forward, and I think sometimes his aggressiveness makes people uncomfortable. I think sometimes Rod's aggressiveness makes people uncomfortable. But that's because they want to change things."

Under Bloomberg, Tusk kept a log of the mayor's campaign promises and kept him regularly apprised of how he was progressing toward meeting those pledges. Tusk also helped rewrite New York's charter, drove efforts to increase compliance of the city's largely ignored leash law and organized a Sheryl Crow concert in Central Park.

"Bradley is an innovative and hardworking professional," Bloomberg, a Republican, said in a statement released by his office. "New York's loss is Illinois' gain."

At times, there is a frenetic quality about Tusk, almost as if he has had too much coffee to drink. At press conferences, he furiously pounds away on a Blackberry while the governor says his piece. Even from a hospital bed, Tusk kept his finger on the pulse of state government. Early in the administration, he seriously injured his back lifting weights and insisted on making state government calls from the hospital emergency room.

Thinking's easier without a tie

And one noticeable hallmark of Tusk in a climate known for its demand for dressing up: He rarely wears a tie. "I just find it constricting," he said. "If I feel more comfortable and think more freely and effectively without a tie on, why not? I figure I'm not here for my looks."

State Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale), himself a onetime top aide to former Gov. Jim Edgar, has a favorable view of Tusk and is respectful of his clout and role as gubernatorial gatekeeper, describing him as a "young, aggressive junkyard dog protector of the governor."

"It's very clear Bradley Tusk has immense power and influence in the governor's office, and that he probably plays a policy role that under previous administrations might have been diluted over four or five staffers," Dillard said.

But the senator and chairman of DuPage County's Republican organization acknowledged that dissatisfaction with Tusk is "rampant" among legislators of all stripes in Springfield.

"My impression of him is very different than what most people think," Dillard said. "Bradley Tusk has always returned my phone calls and been fairly responsive to me. I know at least from my conversations with members of both parties, I'm probably in the minority."

Besides Tusk's role in an administration that critics have said governs too much by press conference, lawmakers complain of his refusal to free up construction funds after believing they won his commitment to do so and his penchant for staying far removed from some rank-and-file lawmakers. They also don't believe he fully understands the nuances of Illinois politics.

"If I'd been a Bradley Tusk and I came in from out of state and no one knew who the hell I was, the first thing I'd have done was say show me where the movers and shakers are," said state Rep. Lovana Jones (D-Chicago), a respected veteran lawmaker who has never met Tusk. "He's done none of that. It makes you wonder."

But Blagojevich is unmoved by the critics.

"You can never make everyone happy in this business. He wasn't brought on to do that. He was brought on to focus on policy, ideas and our different initiatives. He is not our liaison to the Legislature. It's not his job to work and cultivate the General Assembly, though he does that. Maybe not everybody feels that, but that's not his role," the governor said.

"A major player in your administration ought to reflect your biggest promise you made to the people, that you're going to change things," Blagojevich continued. "Bringing in someone not from the system, an outsider, someone with a fresh approach and who's young and idealistic, to me that represents and reflects the kind of change I promised to the people of Illinois."

Long days, long weeks

Tusk is married to art historian Harper Montgomery, who is working on her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. His tastes are contemporary and run the gamut. He just bought an iPod and likes the alternative rock groups the Pixies and the White Stripes, and particularly that latter band's recent album with country legend Loretta Lynn. The last book he read was Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, and his most recent movie was "Sideways."

That's a pretty broad spectrum for someone whose workdays typically begin at 8 a.m. and often go late into the night and whose weekends often are spent partly boning up on reports given to him during the week by state agency directors.

As for the overall job he has done as ultimate insider and lightning rod under Blagojevich, "I'm not going to grade myself. I'll let you do that," Tusk told an interviewer. "But if all you do is make everybody happy, then it would be hard to point to a lot of changes you had implemented."

Tusk remembers his initial meeting with Blagojevich and how the aspiring congressman seemed "intrigued" by the idea that someone would think he could carry a tune in a Downstate church. Describing himself as "pretty dedicated to this guy," Tusk said he and his boss wind up thinking a lot alike. "Rod is a guy who likes creativity. That's one of the reasons he and I have hit it off so well."

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