Buried deep within Governor Rod Blagojevich's annual budget address last week was a nasty argument with the most influential bunch of do-gooders in Illinois - the social-service providers.

These are the groups, many of them religious (such as the Catholic Conference, Lutheran Social Services, and the Jewish Federation), that take care of the state's most vulnerable citizens.

At first glance, it might seem puzzling that last week's list of federal indictments included the powerful lobbying firm of Ronan Potts, but not the guy who runs the firm, Al Ronan.

Ronan's attorney has all but admitted that Ronan is "Fawell Associate 1," who was repeatedly referred to in the indictments of former George Ryan Chief of Staff Scott Fawell and others connected to Fawell's alleged schemings at the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, which Fawell ran for four years.

You really have to hand it to Governor Rod Blagojevich.

By simply proposing to transfer the powers of the Illinois State Board of Education to his own office, Blagojevich did several huge favors for the teachers unions, forestalled any budget-busting funding increases for education this year, and all but killed the income-for-property-tax-swap idea for the rest of his first term - while politically positioning himself as a feisty fiscal conservative, a gutsy hands-on reformer, and a concerned pro-education leader.

Governor Rod Blagojevich won a lot of legislative victories last year.

He rammed through a $10-billion pension-funding plan, increased taxes and fees, enacted several bills that protected workers, and killed an attempt to expand gambling.

Illinois Senator John Sullivan (D-Rushville) was the biggest surprise winner of the 2002 election. Political observers are still scratching their heads at how the Democrat defeated popular Republican Senator Laura Kent Donahue in a Republican-leaning district.

Despite winning two consecutive statewide elections by overwhelming margins, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes has just 14 percent in the U.S. Senate race, according to the latest Chicago Tribune poll. Even worse, Hynes is tied with two of his opponents, Maria Pappas and Barack Obama.

So far, the ugliest state-legislative primary race is in suburban McHenry County. Two Republicans are battling to challenge state Representative Jack Franks (D-Crystal Lake) in the general election.

Perry Moy (R-Woodstock) is the anointed candidate, a popular restaurant owner and county-board member who has widespread support among the local GOP organization.

Last year was one of transition for Illinois' political leadership.

The year began with Republican Governor George Ryan leaving office after just four years in office - a term constantly overshadowed by allegations of corruption while he was secretary of state.

"A prosecutor once described political corruption as a 'time-honored tradition' in Illinois, but the scandal outlined in a 91-page indictment against former Governor George Ryan might be the worst yet," claimed the Associated Press last week.

My father is a Barry Goldwater Republican. Goldwater, you will recall, was the Republican presidential nominee in 1964 who once said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

Dad never voted for a Democrat in his life until 1984.

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