CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich may be bound for prison, where his name will eventually fade from the headlines, but the spotlight-loving former governor may take a kind of solace in knowing he tops The Associated Press' list of Illinois news stories for 2011.
His retrial conviction and sentencing for attempting to auction off President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat and other corruption crimes was the near-unanimous choice as the year's No. 1 story in the AP's annual survey of its Illinois member editors and staff.
Finishing second was former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's election as Chicago's first new mayor in more than two decades. The historic enactment of civil unions came in third.
A February blizzard that walloped Illinois, shutting down Chicago's Lake Shore Drive for days, was fourth. Right behind was the deadbeat Illinois government's failure once again to pay billions in overdue bills and the income tax hike signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn. Rounding out the list were Oprah Winfrey's departure from Chicago and the first murder trial for Nicholas Sheley, who's accused of eight murders in Illinois and Missouri.
But no story seemed to shock and amuse, disgust and captivate, in quite the same way as the impeached governor's legal saga.
A jury convicted him of wide-ranging corruption charges in June. That was followed in early December by his sentencing hearing, during which the ex-governor with the outsized personality and hair to match did something many thought he would never do: Say "I'm sorry."
U.S. District Judge James Zagel responded by handing the Democrat a 14-year prison sentence — one of the stiffest terms ever imposed for corruption in Illinois. News outlets statewide ran photos of a visibly shaken Blagojevich leaving court and returning home to his two young daughters with his tearful wife, Patti.
Blagojevich's fall from grace has taken the No. 1 slot on the top ten list for three years in a row, dating back to his ouster as governor. Illinoisans who have grown weary of his story now may be glad to see him off the front pages and consigned to history books, including one member editor who left him off the Top Story list altogether.
While the ex-governor provided the biggest media spectacle in 2011, other news in the top ten arguably had more immediate impact on people's lives.
A wave of ceremonies across Illinois followed the enactment in June of the civil unions legislation, which provided gay and lesbian couples many of the rights and legal protections of marriage, including the right to inherit their partner's property.
Attending one ceremony in Chicago on June 2, Quinn endeavored to put the civil unions legislation in historical perspective, saying, "This was one of the most important bills that Illinois has passed in anyone's memory."
The state's failure once again to pay billions of dollars in overdue bills affected hundreds of vendors and service providers across the state — from ambulance operators to aircraft repairmen — forcing some companies to borrow money or cut staff to make ends meet. In a joint project, the AP-Illinois and member newspapers turned a floodlight on the state's systematic failure to pay the bills as a budget balancing mechanism.
A change in tax rates may have directly affected a greater number of Illinoisans than any other event in 2011. To help plug the state's budget hole, Quinn signed legislation in January increasing the personal tax rate to 5 percent, up from 3 percent. That means someone who previously owed the state $1,000 in taxes will now pay $1,666.
As she's inclined to do, Mother Nature also made big news.
A fearsome storm dumped some 20 inches of snow on parts of the state, prompting the first declared snow days for Chicago Public Schools in 12 years and grounding planes. It also stranded hundreds of cars on the city's iconic Lake Shore Drive — images which drew national attention in the waning months of Mayor Richard Daley's 22 years in office.
Stories rounding out the top ten included the abolition of the death penalty, which came in seventh. Quinn signed legislation in March abolishing capital punishment, and he simultaneously commuted the sentences of 15 men on death row to life in prison without parole.
The struggling Illinois economy took the eighth spot. The state's economy muddled along, like most of the rest of the country. But Illinois saw more unemployment than many states, with a jobless rate that hovered stubbornly around 10 percent.
The departure from Chicago of the queen of TV talk shows, Oprah Winfrey, made the list at No. 9.
Over 25 years, her Chicago-based "The Oprah Winfrey Show" featured around 30,000 guests in some 4,500 episodes — in TV that reflected and defined American culture along the way. Winfrey taped her last shows in spring, pulled up her stakes and left Chicago.
At No. 10 on the AP's list was the first trial of Sheley, who is accused of a killing spree in two states.
It took more than three years for Sheley to finally face a jury, but it took jurors less than an hour of deliberations in September to convict him in the 2008 beating death of 93-year-old Ronald Randall. Sheley still faces charges in the seven other deaths.
Other news that garnered votes included Quinn's veto of gambling-expansion legislation, the induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame of Chicago Cubs great Ron Santo, the conviction of longtime Illinois powerbroker William Cellini on corruption charges and the murder conviction of Christopher Coleman in southern Illinois for strangling to death his wife and their two sons in 2009.