Things just keep getting weirder in Illinois. It’s been widely understood that the U.S. Senate leaders would reject any appointment by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. But now, not only is Blagojevich defying the undeniable, he’s also managed to involve race in a situation that already is clouded by sensationalism.
Blagojevich on Tuesday said he is appointing former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to fulfill the last two years of Obama’s Senate term, but Burris is unlikely to actually serve in the seat. Secretary of State Jesse White said he is refusing to co-sign the paperwork, thereby blocking the appointment. Even if White lacks authority to do so, all Democratic U.S. senators already announced they would reject the governor’s appointment regardless of whom he picked.
State Treasurer Alexi Gainnoulias said Blagojevich’s actions heighten the need for a quick impeachment. “Regardless of whether he wanted to appoint Mother Theresa or Abraham Lincoln, I believe Blagojevich lost that right when he allegedly attempted to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder. … Because of Blagojevich’s actions, the appointment process has been tainted and will continue to be tainted as long as he holds office.”
Republicans continue to call for a special election to replace Obama, but the Illinois Democratic leadership did not advance legislation that would allow for that to happen. House GOP Leader Tom Cross said in a Statehouse news conference today that, yes, the Republican Party would stand to benefit from a special election, but it’s the only way to start to clean the stain left by Blagojevich’s arrest December 9. “The special election is the one way to say, not only to this state, but to the country: We learned something. We got it. We’re going to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”
Cross said he was shocked Tuesday morning when he heard the governor would appoint a Senate replacement even though an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving the appointment topped a 76-page criminal complaint against the governor. “I thought it was a joke. Literally, I thought, ‘There’s no way. It’s just some sick, funny, wacky rumor that’s on the Internet, that there’s no way in a million years it’s going to happen. He would not do this.” Cross said he couldn’t take the wildest guess about why the governor would actually follow through on the appointment. Then he pondered that the governor might be akin to a rabid dog in the corner that’s going to lash out in anger at the world.
Cross said Tuesday’s action could quicken the pace of the House committee investigating cause for impeachment.
Whatever the governor’s intentions, Burris is now caught in a political storm that might blow over his 40 years of experience. The Centralia native of southern Illinois became the first African American elected to a statewide office, serving three terms as state comptroller between 1979 and 1991, followed by one term as attorney general. His political experience includes serving as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee from 1985 to 1989.
But his political experience also includes repeated and failed attempts to win higher office. He’s run for governor three times, including in 2002 against Blagojevich. He also ran for the U.S. Senate and for Chicago mayor. Read this Illinois Issues profile of Burris in 1998: “What makes Roland run?”
Kent Redfield, political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said although Burris had been lobbying for Obama's seat and although he’s always had the image of aiming for higher office, it’s surprising that he accepted the appointment. “I think he’s letting his ambition cloud his judgment. He and the governor seem to share one thing, which is that ‘it’s about me.’”
Accepting the position after Blagojevich’s arrest also has potential to taint Burris as "Blagojevich’s senator," Redfield added. “It doesn’t matter if he’s pure as the driven snow.”
Blagojevich actually made a plea to the public during his Chicago news conference, seen on CNN. “I’d like to ask everyone to do one last thing: Please don’t allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man.”
The plea thickened when U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush joined the news conference and thanked God for Blagojevich’s selection of Burris because he is an African American with 40 years of public service. He said maintaining an African American seat vacated by Obama is a matter of national importance. “Roland Burris stands head and shoulders above most elected officials in this nation, and so there’s no rhyme or reason that he should not be seated in the U.S. Senate,” Rush said. Then he added this racially-charged challenge: “I don’t think there’s anyone, any U.S. senator, who’s sitting in the Senate right now, [who] would want to go on record to deny one African American from being seated in the U.S. Senate. I don’t think they want to go on record doing that.”
Burris said he had no relationship with “that situation,” referring to the governor’s legal problems. Standing at Blagojevich’s side, he said: “I have no comment on what the governor’s circumstance is. And as a former attorney general of this state, I know, and I think most of you all know, that in this legal process, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty.”
The House committee investigating impeachment is on hold until at least January 5, when the feds could decide whether to release recorded conversations detailed in the criminal complaint.