What a difference a week makes on Capitol Hill. One week ago Roland W. Burris arrived in the nation’s capital literally on the outside looking in; the supposedly tainted appointee of a disgraced governor. Left standing in the rain when his credentials were rejected on a technicality, Burris was a sad sight, standing in the rain declaring himself the “junior Senator from Illinois” but with no legal standing and no portfolio.
All of that has changed and the first Black Comptroller, Attorney General and statewide elected official in Illinois has joined the exclusive club called the United States Senate. With Bible in hand, Burris took the oath of office administered by Vice President Dick Cheney and completed a very unlikely path to the United States Senate. His detractors of one week ago welcomed him with open arms as he assumed his place as the only Black member of the upper house of Congress to the applause of his colleagues.
Few would have predicted this scenario two weeks ago when Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was at the center of a storm after his arrest on charges of selling political favors and his Democratic colleagues were demanding his resignation; consequently calling into question the legitimacy of any appointment he would make to fill the unexpired term of Barack Obama. Along the way, one potential successor to Obama, Rep. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., saw his chances fade after he was identified as “Senate Candidate Number 5” in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich. Though not directly implicated, the reference to Jackson was tied to alleged representatives of the congressman who the U.S. Attorney claims attempted to offer the governor payment in exchange for appointing Jackson to the Senate. At no time did Roland Burris’ name appear on the radar screen until Governor Blagojevich made a surprise appointment that caught critics off-guard and trumped the Democratic establishment.
The Burris affair quickly became a major distraction for Democrats right at the time the party was attempting to gain majority control of Congress and witness the swearing-in of the nation’s first Black President, also a Democrat. The quick condemnation of Blagojevich by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the equally quick “zero tolerance” for any of the governor’s appointees set a line in the sand. Once the governor identified Roland Burris as the Senator Designee, Reid was placed in the awkward position of opposing a highly qualified Black candidate in the midst of the celebratory atmosphere of Blacks over the election of Barack Obama and their vital role in the Democrats’ November victory. Further muddying the waters was the declaration of support from three members of the Congressional Black Caucus – Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). As the episode wore on Burris also received the support of Senator Diane Feinstein of California.
While Burris’ appointment lacks the historical mark of Barack Obama’s capturing the presidency, he does continue a lineage that includes only three other Black Senators in the 20th Century, Republican Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, and Democrats Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama of Illinois. More importantly for Democrats, Burris represents another vote that helps them increase their majority as they await the final determination of the race in Minnesota that has comedian Al Franken the apparent winner over incumbent Republican Norm Coleman. The seating of Burris also saves both parties the embarrassment of a Senate with no Black representation; a motivating factor for the Democrats who do not want to run the risk of alienating Black voters.
Senator Burris takes his seat as Congress considers an economic recovery package that is expected to be delivered to President Obama in the next several weeks. Burris will have little time to relax and will face a rather steep and sharp learning curve as the House proposal winds its way through the process and the Senate develops its own plan. The new junior Senator from Illinois will quickly learn that being on the inside may have its perks but can be just as isolating as his solo performance in the rain last week.