In appointing veteran African-American officeholder Roland Burris to the Senate, embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich has done more than just flout the will of the Illinois establishment, the Senate and President-elect Barack Obama. With one stunning and politically exquisite act of defiance, he audaciously reasserted his authority and designed a trap that his opponents cannot easily sidestep.
“If he was going to appoint somebody, this is as clever as he could have been – in the sense it gets him back in the limelight and it puts him on the offensive, said Kent Redfield, a professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield and the author of several books on Illinois politics. “Burris would have been an okay caretaker appointment a month ago. And he’s an African-American from Chicago who has a clean record.”
Just days ago, as a result of criminal charges lodged against him in connection with the alleged sale of the Obama Senate seat, it appeared that Blagojevich was boxed in, destined to leave office in disgrace with only the timing of his departure in question.
The state’s attorney general sought to have him declared too incapacitated to serve. The legislature was moving inexorably toward impeachment. Blagojevich’s attorney said the governor would relinquish the responsibility of making the appointment if a special election was held instead.
But in a gambit as unexpected as it was politically shrewd, the seemingly powerless two-term Democratic governor suddenly turned the tables by picking a candidate whose stature and background would make him difficult to assail—despite the tainted appointment process.
"Roland Burris is worthy," said Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush at a press conference Tuesday where Blagojevich announced the appointment. "He has not, in 20 years of public service, had one iota of taint on his record as a public servant. He is an esteemed member of this state and this community."
The first African-American official elected statewide in Illinois, Burris was born Downstate but has a Chicago base. His record of service is long, with stints as the state comptroller and attorney general, and his name recognition is extensive as a result of three unsuccessful runs for governor (including in 2002 when he narrowly lost to Blagojevich in the Democratic primary), a run for the Senate and for mayor of Chicago.
The Burris appointment also serves another purpose that can hardly be overlooked—while it won't remove the tarnish on his name, it advances Blagojevich’s own political interests.
The selection enabled him to embarrass a longtime rival, state House Speaker Michael Madigan, who delayed legislation calling for a special election to determine Obama’s successor because, many speculated, it would give Republicans the opportunity to win the seat.
Because of that decision, Blagojevich said, he needed to make an appointment because he didn’t want to leave Illinois without one of its two senators when the new Congress is sworn in.
More important, though, the Burris appointment stands to shore up the governor's support among the one constituency that backed him even as his approval ratings tanked in the run-up to the Senate scandal.
Blagojevich has long enjoyed healthy support within the state’s African-American community, in part due to his push to expand health care for uninsured children. He has had a good working relationship with outgoing state Senate President Emil Jones, an African-American who was one of the governor's few legislative allies during his second term. In a telling scene, Blagojevich met with a group of prominent African-American pastors the day after his arrest.
Some Democratic operatives speculate that the increasingly isolated Blagojevich is looking for support wherever he can find it – and the Burris appointment is in part a play for the one community that hasn't completely abandoned him.
The racial component was front and center at Tuesday’s press conference announcing the appointment when Rush, who is African American, stepped to the podium and urged the media “not to hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointor.”
“There are no African-Americans in the Senate, and I don't think that anyone, any U.S. Senator who is sitting right now would want to go on record to deny one African-American from being seated in the U.S. Senate,” he added.
On his way out of the chaotic event, Blagojevich used racially-tinged language to describe his own predicament, telling reporters, “Feel free to castigate the appointer but don’t lynch the appointer.”
Rush has said he will be pressuring his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus to support seating Burris.
Already, there are signs that the Burris appointment has been well-received by black political leadership in Illinois.
“Many of the leaders in the African-American community are very excited about the governor’s choice of Roland Burris. This is a man of impeccable integrity, he’s squeaky clean,” said Rev. Ira Acree, a pastor of a large Chicago church who counseled Blagojevich the day after his arrest. “It would be a slap in the face to the African-American community for the Senate to reject him.”
State Rep. LaShawn Ford, who represents a largely black district in Chicago, said that his constituents have already reacted very positively to Blagojevich’s appointment, adding it gives the governor “a huge political favor” from the community.
“His presence in the African-American community has earned him some respect because other governors haven’t come in and campaigned,” said Ford. “He still comes in to churches in the African-American community, which makes some people feel that he cares about them.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reiterated Tuesday that he will refuse to seat Burris when the Senate is sworn in. And Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who is African-American, has said he will not certify the Burris appointment.
But it’s unclear what legal authority, if any, either has to block the appointment. And pressure to seat Burris could mount, particularly from the Congressional Black Caucus or African-American leadership in Illinois.
Few senators would be eager to reject an appointee who is otherwise well-qualified to serve—not to mention one who would be the Senate’s only African American.
Blagojevich’s appointment of Burris also puts Obama in an awkward situation. The President-elect has been a Burris ally in the past, endorsing him in the 2002 gubernatorial primary against Blagojevich. But Obama sided with Senate Democrats in arguing that Burris should not be seated in the Senate in a statement released Tuesday.
The state legislature is currently holding impeachment hearings, and Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn said he expected the governor would be impeached by February.
Illinois Democratic operatives insist that while the governor may have made a strategically shrewd maneuver given his circumstances, he continues to hold a losing hand. Blagojevich still faces the likelihood of impeachment-- and jail time, if convicted on the criminal charges—and some doubt Burris will ultimately be seated in the Senate.
“Blagojevich is so poisoned politically I can’t imagine circumstances in which the Senate would cave,” said Redfield. “He’s become such a national joke and the Senate Democrats will do anything not to seat his choice.”