Friday, July 10, 2009

Burris: No longer in the running

By Bethany Jaeger
No Lisa Madigan. No Roland Burris. The race to be the next U.S. senator from Illinois just narrowed to a more classic competition. The seat has gained national attention for its previous occupant, President Barack Obama.

Madigan, the Illinois attorney general, announced yesterday and Burris announced today that they opted not run in 2010.

“It’s an open seat, and the focus is more going to be more on national issues than would have been the case if Burris were running or if Lisa Madigan essentially would have cleared the field,” said Kent Redfield, political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

If Madigan would have run, Redfield said she would have been the Democrats’ strongest candidate. “Her not running is a minus for the Democrats, but Burris not running is certainly a plus. There’s no question about that.”

Burris never shed the cloud that hovered over his appointment by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The then-governor had just been arrested on federal corruption charges, accused of trying to personally profit from his powers to appoint the state’s next senator. Early polling of 644 likely voters showed that just 5.3 percent of respondents supported Burris as a candidate for a full term. Numerous Illinois officials, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, urged Burris step down. Burris wouldn’t budge. His ambitious style came through in, "Always in the running," our profile of him in Illinois Issues magazine.

Burris said today during a Chicago news conference that fundraising had a lot to do with his decision not to run in 2010. Here’s an excerpt of his announcement:

Life is about choices. Make no mistake, I love serving in the United States Senate. I love serving the people of Illinois, make no mistake.

I’m the only African-American serving in the Senate, and I believe that diversity and representation of all segments of our society is essential to who we are as a nation.

The reality of being a U.S. senator today [is that it] requires not only a significant time commitment to performing the job, but an almost equal commitment to raising funds to run competitively for the office.

Political races have become far too expensive in this country.

I was called to choose between spending my time raising funds or spending my time raising issues for my state. The people … should always come first.

The chronicles of Burris’ statements about whether he spoke to Blagojevich, Blagojevich’s brother or Blagojevich’s inner circle was the never-ending story. First he testified to an Illinois House committee that was investigating cause for the governor's impeachment. He said he only spoke with Lon Monk, Blagojevich’s former chief of staff. Then Burris revealed in a follow-up affidavit that he also spoke with the governor’s brother, as well as three insiders: Doug Scofield, John Wyma and former Deputy Gov. John Harris, who just pleaded guilty to wire fraud in the ongoing Blagojevich corruption case.

Burris most recently avoided perjury charges in Sangamon County, where State’s Attorney John Schmidt said Burris’s statements might have been vague, but there’s no proof that he intentionally mislead the Illinois House committee. Burris still faces a probe by the U.S. Senate.

His bow out of the 2010 election eliminated an easy target for the GOP, Redfield said. “It kind of takes Burris and Blagojevich out of the Senate race.”

Now, likely candidates are taking shape. On the Democratic side, they include state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. Redfield says he has the advantage of being the only candidate so far who has run a statewide race before. He also has a significant campaign kitty, with reportedly more than $1 million raised for his potential Senate bid. Two candidates with less name recognition include Cheryle Jackson, chief executive officer of the Chicago Urban League, and Chris Kennedy, head of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart and son of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Redfield said Jackson also could have a slight disadvantage by being tied to Blagojevich. She was his communications director during his first term.

On the Republican side, U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk of Hinsdale has been reported as set to run for the Senate seat. Redfield said he brings his national experience to the table, but as a moderate Republican, he would have to work to gain the moderate and independent vote. Andy McKenna, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party and businessman, also has reportedly discussed the idea. He lost his 2006 bid.

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