Fight Over Blagojevich Nomination Takes Racial Turn

Posted December 30, 2008 at 12:27pm

Updated: 5:54 p.m.

Embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (D) surprising decision to name a successor to the open Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama took on racial tones Tuesday as Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) promised to take up the appointee’s case on the Hill as an issue of racial equality.

Blagojevich named former Attorney General Roland Burris (D) to take Obama’s place even as the governor is under investigation for trying to sell that very same seat. Burris, 71, currently runs a political consulting firm and works as a lawyer. He previously served as Illinois comptroller and was the Illinois attorney general from 1991 through 1995.

While the governor has been warned by both state and federal officials not to appoint a successor, he argued Tuesday that he was required by law to do so. Illinois is entitled to two U.S. Senators, he added.

Burris echoed that argument, telling reporters he did not want the state to enter the 111th Congress short-handed. Burris added that he has no ties to the controversy and had merely accepted an appointment. However, he did comment that his consulting firm had received contracts from the state, and his son’s law firm had done some business with the state government as well.

Burris already has a strong advocate in Congress in Rush, who argued that an African-American must take the spot vacated by Obama. Obama was the only African-American in the Senate, and it is of “tremendous national importance” that there be more African-Americans in that chamber.

Burris is an honorable man with “not one iota of taint on his record as a public servant” and should not be tainted by the controversy surrounding Blagojevich, Rush added. “I would not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer,” he warned.

Rush is planning to make his case to the Congressional Black Caucus and various Senators, beginning with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the state’s senior Senator. “There is no rhyme or reason why he should not be seated in the U.S. Senate,” Rush said.

Following a multiyear investigation by the FBI, Blagojevich was charged with selling Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder, among other corruption charges. In a Dec. 19 press conference, the two-term Democratic governor proclaimed his innocence and vowed to fight the charges until he is vindicated.

But it’s doubtful that anyone Blagojevich names to the seat, including Burris, would be seated. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reiterated his caucus’ position Tuesday afternoon to refuse to seat anyone Blagojevich names to the state’s open Senate seat.

In a statement from the Democratic leadership office, Reid chastised Blagojevich for not heeding the warning of all 50 Democratic Senators to refrain from naming an Obama replacement. The Senate Democratic Conference sent a letter to Blagojevich on Dec. 10 warning they would exercise their constitutional right to refuse to seat anyone he appointed to the Illinois Senate seat.

“We say this without prejudice toward Roland Burris’s ability, and we respect his years of public service,” the statement read. “But this is not about Mr. Burris; it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat. Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus.”

Democratic leadership also said given the Democrats’ agenda in the upcoming Congress, it is imperative that each state have two seated Senators as soon as possible — but the caucus would nonetheless not accept anyone nominated by Blagojevich.

A prominent black politician in the 1980s and 1990s, Burris lost a bid for governor in 1994. He also lost the Democratic primary for Senate in 1984 to Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.).

In a statement released late Tuesday afternoon, Obama said: “Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat. I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it.

“I believe the best resolution would be for the Governor to resign his office and allow a lawful and appropriate process of succession to take place. While Governor Blagojevich is entitled to his day in court, the people of Illinois are entitled to a functioning government and major decisions free of taint and controversy,” the president-elect said.