I was absolutely stunned the next morning when I picked up the newspapers. Six people dead in a stairwell? Sent back upstairs by busy firefighters and then overcome by thick, black smoke when they were unable to find an unlocked door, and then not discovered for another 90 minutes when a fire investigator happened to stumble across their bodies?
Hundreds of thousands of people live and work in older high-rises that, like the burned Loop building, have locked stairwell doors and no sprinkler systems. The six deaths have struck a nerve in the city unlike anything we've seen in a while. Maybe it's because people came to the realization last week that their own government has refused to protect them.
Those hundreds of thousands of high-risers were suddenly hit with the harsh reality that their elected officials are too addicted to the mountains of campaign cash and favors from Loop real-estate barons to force the owners to upgrade their buildings.
Mayor Richard Daley mumbled something about taking another look at the building codes, but he's said the same thing three times before and nothing has ever happened. The aldermen are even worse than the mayor. And Cook County Board President John Stroger won't make any big moves without the mayor's approval.
So that's when many Chicagoans - and suburban commuters who work downtown - started looking to Governor Rod Blagojevich for some leadership. After all, Governor Blagojevich constantly portrays himself as a reformer. He never misses an opportunity to remind us that he's a young, energetic do-gooder fighting against the old, entrenched forces of corruption. Surely he would do something to ease the minds of high-rise denizens.
Unfortunately, most people haven't yet figured out that this governor only picks fights with those who can't hit back. He can berate legislators and statewide officeholders as a bunch of corrupt hacks because he controls their budgets. He can make straw men out of the pharmaceutical industry and flail away at their high prices or slam greedy riverboat owners without worry of any real retaliation. He'll publicly harangue a baseball fan who mistakenly touches a foul ball because he knows the poor schmuck has to keep his mouth shut.
But attack or undermine Mayor Daley? No way. Daley has more than enough power to send Blagojevich back to his quiet little law practice on the Northwest Side. Forget it. Plus, like every other major Chicago politico, the governor raises lots of dough from those downtown-building owners. For a week, the governor took a pass on the whole thing.
Even after a firestorm of negative publicity finally forced the governor to appoint a high-caliber expert to oversee the investigation and submit recommendations, Blagojevich went out of his way to make it look like he did so in reaction to President Stroger's inability to appoint a qualified team of investigators. Stroger wasn't happy, but, politically, it's a whole lot safer to attack a guy who's on his way out than the guy with all the clout.
So far, the governor has had a lot of success with this reform stuff. The polls show the public loves it.
But what he might not fully understand yet is that voters, and the media, will always demand more of a reformer. If he's supposed to be the sheriff in the white hat, then whenever a problem comes up they'll expect him to deal with it. And if he doesn't, well, then he's no better than the "old way" politicians he's always complaining about.
Mark my words: One day he's gonna be forced to take on the mayor or risk losing his credibility. He barely slipped the noose this time around. But there are three years left in his term. A lot can happen.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).