In a bold and defiant move, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich named former state Attorney General Roland W. Burris the replacement for President-elect Barack Obama in the United States Senate. The surprise move comes as Blagojevich wages a battle to stay in office as the state legislature moves to impeach him upon the governor being accused by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of engaging in a “pay for play” scheme, allegedly involving the selling of the Senate seat in return for a political contribution.
Governor Blagojevich made the appointment despite warnings from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that any pick the governor made would be seen as illegitimate and tainted. Reid also made it clear that the Democratic Caucus would not sit any appointment made by Blagojevich. Under Senate rules the party has the power to refuse to sit a Member. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that the House and Senate cannot deny a Member who meets the qualifications to serve. President-elect Obama also expressed disappointment with the pick, in keeping with his previous stand that Governor Blagojevich should resign.
In many ways the choice of Roland Burris backs Democrats into a corner. Burris is a history maker. Early in his career he served as the first Black National Bank Examiner with the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. In Illinois, he served as state comptroller and Attorney General, and in the process became the first Black to win statewide office. He also unsuccessfully ran for governor on three occasions, once for mayor of Chicago and U.S. Senator; but his years in public office and statewide profile has given him sufficient name recognition to be known throughout the state.
Despite the protestations of Democrats on the Hill, Blagojevich may have trumped the party. By picking a well established and respected Illinois public servant who is a Black American, the governor may have outmaneuvered his critics. No one can deny Burris’ qualifications to serve and he also answers advocates in the community who insisted that Obama’s replacement should be Black. One of those people taking that position was Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1), the former Black Panther, who was at Tuesday’s press conference with the governor. Rush, aware of the firestorm around Blagojevich, said, “I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer. Roland Burris is worthy.” In addition, Rep. Danny Davis, who said he had rejected an offer to be appointed to the seat, also indicated his support for Roland Burris.
By naming Burris Governor Blagojevich also ensures that there will be at least one Black in the United States Senate. For a party that owes much of their historic White House win to Black voters, it will be difficult to reject a qualified Black candidate on the basis of the governor’s troubles. In a bit of irony, Governor Blagojevich also helps his Democratic critics by naming a party stalwart to the seat. In many ways the choice of Burris will be difficult for the Democrats to reject simply given that Blagojevich is still the governor.
The Senate seat has been a hot potato for Democrats since Governor Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges. In the process Rep. Jesse Jackson’s (D-2) chances to succeed Barack Obama were killed when it was revealed that he was “Senate Candidate 5” in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich. It is alleged that individuals claiming to represent Jackson allegedly promised Blagojevich up to $1 million in exchange for naming the congressman to the Senate seat. Rep. Jackson has vehemently denied any involvement but also took himself out of the running for the seat.
The ongoing circus around Blagojevich also prompted President-elect Obama to order an internal investigation into staff contacts with the governor. There had been speculation that Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-5), the President-elect’s chief of staff, had conversations with the governor over the matter of the Senate vacancy. The report released by the President-elect noted there was some contact but denied that there were any improprieties by Emanuel or any Obama staff in their communication with the governor. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has made clear that the President-elect is not implicated in the charges against Governor Blagojevich.