Blago’s Wily Move

The Illinois governor dares the Senate to reject his appointee, Roland Burris.

Edward McClelland recently chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

You don’t like Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s pick for the U.S. Senate? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you want to see another black guy in the World’s Most Exclusive Club?

That was the tone of Blagojevich’s press conference Tuesday afternoon, when he introduced former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris as his choice to fill the unexpired term of President-elect Barack Obama.

Blagojevich also reminded voters that if he hadn’t acted, Illinois would be short-handed when the U.S. Senate convenes next week. A gubernatorial appointment is the only way to fill Obama’s seat, since the General Assembly failed to schedule a special election.

“As governor, I am required to make this appointment,” Blagojevich said. “If I don’t, then the people of Illinois will be deprived of their voice and vote in the Senate.”

Blagojevich likes to brag about his “testicular virility.” This was a ballsy move by a governor who wants to show he’s still running the state and wants to use racial politics to confound his enemies. Burris is an uninspiring but unobjectionable politician who served 16 years in statewide office as comptroller and attorney general. Burris made it through a decade and a half without a major scandal—a real achievement in Illinois. Even better, he wasn’t one of the candidates Blagojevich discussed in phone conversations taped by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. According to Burris, he and Blagojevich first discussed the appointment on Sunday night.

“Don’t allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man,” Blagojevich said.

That was Blagojevich using the term “good and honest,” so reporters pointed out that Burris’ law firm has contributed $14,000 to Blagojevich’s campaigns. Burris’ consulting firm also had a contract with the Illinois Department of Transportation to certify minority businesses.

Burris has been out of politics since 2002, when he ran against Blagojevich for governor. He didn’t help himself in that campaign when called his opponents “unqualified white boys.” But he did help Blagojevich, siphoning off black votes from the third candidate in that race, a popular Chicago school superintendent. Blagojevich squeaked through the primary with 38 percent and has credited Burris’ presence in the race for his victory.

By 2002, Burris was starting to look like a shopworn politician. One of his favorite campaign lines was “I have never lost a race to a Republican.” He’s lost plenty to Democrats, though: He ran for governor three times and mayor of Chicago once. Paul Simon beat him in the 1984 Senate primary. Burris’ tombstone in Oakwoods Cemetery, which lists all his achievements, has an empty space in the lower right-hand corner. He was hoping to fill it with “Governor of Illinois.”

What are Burris’ strengths? Besides his 16 years in office, he grew up downstate, in Centralia, Ill. He understands, more than most contenders for the seat, that there is an Illinois outside Chicago. And he’s African-American. That helps Blagojevich at home. Blacks are the best friends he has left in Illinois, and they were expecting the governor to keep the Senate integrated. It also helps him in Washington. If Harry Reid stands on the Capitol steps next week and tries to bar Roland Burris, he won’t just be rejecting Blagojevich’s senator—he’ll be rejecting black America’s senator.

At the news conference, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush dared the Senate to say no.

“This is not just a state of Illinois matter,” said Rush, who hopes to rally the Congressional Black Caucus behind Burris. “Indeed, by this decision, it has tremendous national importance. We need to have an African-American in the U.S. Senate. I would ask you not to hang or lynch the appointee as you tried to do to the appointer.”

Then he added, “I don’t think that any U.S. senator wants to go on record to deny one black senator from being seated.”

Burris called a potential challenge “a process we must look forward to.”

But here’s a piece of luck for Reid. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who is also African-American, says he won’t certify Burris’ appointment. That may not invalidate the choice, but it will allow discomfited Senate Democrats to point out that a black politician was the first to reject Burris.

In a way, Burris has a claim on this seat. When he was elected comptroller in 1978, he was the first African-American to hold statewide office in Illinois, beating a path that Barack Obama later followed to the U.S. Senate.

If Blagojevich has any political life remaining, “United States Senator” will fill that last line on Burris’ tombstone.