The Obama Senate Seat: Blagojevich Keeps On Giving

  • Share
  • Read Later
M. Spencer Green / AP

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich announces his choice of former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to fill President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat on Dec. 30

The last time Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich presided over a press conference, he spouted several lines from Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" to underline his refusal to give in to his critics and to march on through the controversies of December. On Tuesday, coincidentally Kipling's 143rd birthday, Blagojevich threw another press conference. But the embattled governor could have taken a few other words from the poet to heart: "Borrow trouble for yourself, if that's your nature, but don't lend it to your neighbors."

At the press conference, Blagojevich brought more trouble, including the issue of race, to an already florid scandal. He announced that he was appointing a successor, former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, to Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat — a move that will continue to roil the political waters in Illinois and ensure a continuing distraction for the President-elect. By naming Burris, the governor blatantly ignored warnings by Senate majority leader Harry Reid that any Blagojevich appointee would not be seated by the Senate. The governor also belied the assessment of his own defense attorney, who earlier said that Blagojevich would not be naming an Obama successor. At his press conference, the governor said he was "required" to make the appointment lest the people of Illinois lose their voice in the Senate, embodied by two Senators. Blagojevich is the only person empowered to fill an empty Senate seat from Illinois. He has, however, been charged with trying to sell that seat for political, and possibly financial, gain. (See the top 10 scandals of 2008.)

"Part of me is shocked and stunned. Part of me just thinks this is typical Rod Blagojevich," says Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield. The Democratic caucus in the Senate released a letter that said in part, “It is truly regrettable that despite requests from all 50 Democratic Senators and public officials throughout Illinois, Gov. Blagojevich would take the imprudent step of appointing someone to the United States Senate who would serve under a shadow and be plagued by questions of impropriety." In Illinois, the circus atmosphere continued; the governor left the press room only to be replaced by his vociferous rival, Lieut. Governor Pat Quinn, who declared, "We believe in clean govnernment, and Rod Blagojevich has unclean hands — and he should not be able to make an appointment to any office whatsoever. He should be impeached and convicted with speed by the Illinois senate and removed from office." Meanwhile, the office of Illinois secretary of state Jesse White reiterated that White will not certify any appointment by Blagojevich and that the seat will probably remain in limbo. White said in a statement, "Although I have respect for former Attorney General Roland Burris, because of the current cloud of controversy surrounding the governor, I cannot accept the document [appointing him to the Senate]."

Burris, 71, has decades of experience in state politics. In 1978, he was elected state comptroller, becoming the first African American to win statewide office in Illinois. He was Blagojevich's rival for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002. "Don't allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man," Blagojevich said in making the appointment. Answering questions at the press conference, Burris was eventually overwhelmed by queries aimed at Blagojevich, who returned to the podium to say, "I don't want to hog the limelight," and defended his right to appoint Burris, insisting it was to preserve the prerogatives of the people of Illinois. Then Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois joined them at the mike to point out how important it was to appoint an African American to the seat, arguing that the Senate would not want to be in the position of blocking a man who would be the only African American in the Senate, following Obama's departure. "I would ask you not to hang or lynch the appointee as you try to casitgate the appointor. Separate, if you will, the appointee from the appointer," said Rush. "Roland Burris is worthy ... There is no rhyme nor reason he shouldn't be seated in the U.S. Senate." As they left the podium, Blagojevich took some cover by echoing Rush's words. "Feel free to castigate the appointer," he said, "but don’t lynch the appointer. I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing."

The governor has received support from elements of the black community throughout his ordeal. One night shortly after Blagojevich's initial arrest, a group of black ministers gathered at his home to hold a prayer vigil. Yet Blagojevich has previously expressed concerns that Burris' race has affected his electoral chances. In a 2002 radio interview, the governor said Burris lost the primary contest for the gubernatorial contest that year because the color of his skin "hurt him."

While no one questions Burris' integrity, his ego has been the subject of much local commentary. A 2002 profile in the Chicago Tribune described a mausoleum he raised for himself in a cemetery on the city's South Side. The words TRAIL BLAZER are carved into stone on the monument along with a long list of accomplishments. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington recalled a job interview she once had with Burris. "The session lasted one hour," she wrote. "He spent 55 minutes talking about himself."

Washington, a former spokesman for Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington (no relation), wrote that on election night, during a discussion over who might succeed Obama in the Senate, Burris turned to a friend of hers to say, "Why not me?" In mid-December, as the controversy raged over Blagojevich's alleged plot to sell the seat, Burris held a press conference, declaring, "I am more than happy and willing and able to come to the call of my friends, to try to be able to bring some sanity and help to the people of the state, and the people of America, in the United States Senate."

Indeed, given the twists of the Blagojevich saga, the political winds could change and Burris might actually get the seat. The Senate caucus statement made clear that the Senators had no quarrel with Burris: "We respect his years of public service." If he finds his way to the Senate, Burris can surely carve another accomplishment into his mausoleum.

With reporting by Eric Ferkenhoff and Steven Gray / Chicago