Say what you may about Chicago politics but for one thing, there is never a dull moment. First, there was the improbable ascent of a Black, first term United States Senator inside the Beltway and his amazing victory in the November presidential election. Then, on the heels of that history changing event, the governor of the state that produced the next President is charged by the U.S. Attorney in Illinois with trying to sell political favors. Not to be outdone, that governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, refuses to resign and then defies his party’s leaders and appoints a respected Black public servant to succeed the new President in the Senate. Got all of that? And we haven’t even mentioned the side drama involving a Black member of Congress, son of a famed civil rights leader, who became sucked into the madness when it was revealed he was mentioned in the criminal complaint against the governor.
Television’s got nothing on this reality. No Hollywood scriptwriter could be so creative.
No matter what we might think of Governor Rod Blagojevich, we have to give him his due for sheer nerve. In the face of political scandal, imminent indictment, and possible impeachment, he one upped his critics, and defied his party, by appointing someone whose fitness to represent Illinois in the Senate cannot be reasonably challenged. By naming former state Comptroller and Attorney General Roland W. Burris, the first Black to hold statewide office in Illinois, the governor has set up the improbable scenario of Senate Democrats attempting to deny Mr. Burris his seat. It is the worst of possible outcomes for Democrats in this unfolding drama and threatens to stain the January 20 inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black President.
We believe Roland W. Burris should be seated next week when he arrives in Washington, D.C. He is qualified. He is accomplished. He has been a diligent public servant. He should not carry guilt by association. If how individuals came to Congress were the litmus test for their being allowed to serve, both chambers might have a fair number of empty chairs. By the way, though we find the charges against Governor Blagojevich serious and troubling, and hoped he would step aside for the sake of Illinois’ residents, he has not been found guilty of any crime and continues to hold office legitimately; not to mention his right to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
The fact of the matter is the United States Senate remains an exclusively white club. Since the election of Republican Ed Brooke of Massachusetts in the late 1960’s, at no time has there been more than one Black serving in the Senate. In most instances there has only been one and since the tenure of Brooke, there has only been two others; Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama, both from Illinois. If Mr. Obama’s current seat is allowed to remain vacant, it is likely there will once again be no Blacks serving in the upper house of Congress since it is unlikely the vacancies in New York and Delaware will be filled by Black Americans.
So, despite limited options for Black representation in the Senate, it seems that Democratic leaders on the Hill would rather make an example of Blagojevich, by denying Burris, than face the fact that their own failure to produce a more diverse Caucus has now come back to haunt them. Had greater efforts been made through the years to identify Black candidates when Senate vacancies occurred, the body would not resemble the all-white country club it has become. It’s important to remember that Barack Obama made it to the Senate in spite of the regular Democratic machinery.
If Democrats dare refuse to seat Burris, it will, though not totally, negate much of the good will that has surfaced since the November 4 election. For many Blacks, the election of Barack Obama signaled a new era in which qualified Blacks would be given equal opportunity to serve, unencumbered by the whims of a white power structure. To disqualify Burris over a scandal that is no fault of his own, would be an injustice. Let Roland Burris serve.