Slate contributor Edward McClelland was online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s appointment of Roland Burris to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Edward McClelland: Good morning, everyone. I’ve been writing about Rod Blagojevich and the Illinois senate seat crisis from Chicago. I’m ready to answer your questions on that issue, and other aspects of Chicago politics.
Washington, D.C.: The most important question is, can the Senate block the appointment? I seem to recall a case where the House refused to “seat” a corrupt member from Harlem in the 70s. What procedural options do they have?
Edward McClelland: The case you’re referring to is Powell v. McCormack. In 1967, the House refused to seat Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of New York. Powell took his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Congress could only be the judge of a member’s constitutional qualifications—in the case of a senator, whether he’s 30 years old, nine years a citizen, and a resident of his state.
The Senate could refuse to seat Burris and invite a court challenge, hoping the current Supreme Court would give it more latitude in determining its’ members qualifications.
Tying up the appointment in court could keep the seat empty until Blagojevich is removed from office. Then current Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn could make a competing appointment, which the Senate would seat. That, of course, might also be challenged in court by Burris.
Oakland, Calif.: Please comment on the precedent set by Blagojevich’s actions. Can the governor be removed, and if so what are the guidelines? And is his appointment of a replacement for Senator Obama legal?
Edward McClelland: I think Blagojevich’s action is legal. He’s the sitting governor of Illinois, which gives him the authority to appoint a senator. Until he resigns or is removed from office, he can exercise all his powers.
It’s interesting that nobody has challenged Blagojevich’s authority to sign bills or pardon criminals, which he has done since his arrest. But there’s a political element to this Senate appointment. Illinois Democrats don’t want be stuck running on the same ticket as “Blagojevich’s senator” in 2010. That’ll be a tremendous issue for the Republicans. And Senate Democrats want to help them avoid that.
The Illinois General Assembly is already taking steps to remove Blagojevich. A committee has been appointed to decide whether to recommend impeachment to the full House. If Blagojevich is impeached, he would be tried by the state Senate. A two-thirds majority is required to convict. Same as the procedure for a president.
Falls Church, Va.: Did Blago have to act before Jan. 1 for any particular reason? Or was he just looking to make this boring holiday week a little more interesting?
Edward McClelland: Blagojevich had to act before Jan. 6. Otherwise, Illinois would begin the 111th Congress short a senator. I think he wanted to do this before the holiday because we have a long weekend coming up, and Burris needed a week to prepare.
Bethesda, Md.: How will the fact that Mr. Burris has accepted Blagojevich’s appointment, and thus gotten himself involved in this affair, affect Mr. Burris’ reputation and political career?
Edward McClelland: Burris no longer had a political career in Illinois. He was an uninspiring but honest state office holder in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but since then, he had lost three races for governor and a race for mayor. Burris has long been looking for that last big office. He already has a tombstone which lists all of his accomplishments. He left a blank spot in the lower right hand corner, hoping to fill it with “governor.” I think he’ll be just as happy to put “senator” there.
The view of some is that Burris’ ego has allowed Blagojevich to use him as a dupe here. Burris does like to refer to himself in the third person. He named his children Roland II and Rolando. I think he’ll try to run for a full term in 2010. He’s a politician, and it’s more exciting than reviewing minority contracts for the tollway authority.
Arlington, Va.: What’s the mood like in Chicago these days regarding this mess? It must be troubling to be buoyed by Obama and then deflated by Blago all at once.
Edward McClelland: For five weeks, Chicago was the beacon of the world, the city that gave America Barack Obama. Now we’re back to our reputation for political sleaze.
Those are the bright and dark sides of Illinois politics. On the one hand, we lead the nation in racial progress. We produced Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama and more black statewide officials than anyone else. On the other hand, we have this freewheeling, pay to play political culture that produced Rod Blagojevich. So we have both the best and the worst politicians in the country, and yeah, we’re a little proud of our colorful politics.
Washington, D.C.: What is the latest on the Obama-Blagojevich connection? The only thing I heard reported by the media during these past weeks were repetitions of the statements made by Obama and his advisers that there were no “inappropriate” conversations between Obama’s advisers and Blagojevich. However, that implies that there were conversations between the two. I appreciate that Obama and his advisers believe that the conversations were not inappropriate, but that is their opinion. Shouldn’t we see transcripts or more details about the conversations that took place so we can judge for ourselves?
Edward McClelland: I think we’d all like to see transcripts of those conversations, but so far, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is holding them back. That’s even complicating the work of the General Assembly, which wants to use the tapes in impeachment proceedings.
Obama and Blagojevich were never close. Blagojevich was seen as shady even before this episode, and Obama didn’t invite him to the convention, or to Grant Park. Obama definitely took an interest in who would fill his old Senate seat, and used Rahm Emanuel to communicate Valerie Jarrett’s name to Blagojevich. Actually, what I find inappopriate about that situation is that we had the soon-to-be leader of the executive branch trying to influence an appointment to the legislative branch. I also think it was inappropriate for Obama to back the Senate in refusing to seat Burris. He’s the president-elect now. He has to respect the separation of powers and let the Senate police itself.
Alexandria, Va.: What can you tell us about Burris? Is he Senate material? (Whatever that is these days…)
Edward McClelland: Burris has followed the same path as plenty of other senators. He spent 16 years in statewide office, first as comptroller, then as attorney general. Some people think this makes him a political hack or a party regular. He won’t be the only one. While he’s not as gifted an orator or as deep a thinker as Obama, he’s got more political experience, and a broader knowledge of Illinois. He grew up in Downstate Centralia.
Bethesda, Md.: What is Blagojevich thinking? Really. It seems like maybe the guy is delusional. Why hasn’t he stepped down yet?
Edward McClelland: Blagojevich has a very expensive defense attorney who had no doubt advised him that stepping down will look like an admission of guilt. Also, he can’t afford to step. Unlike Eliot Spitzer, Blagojevich is not independently wealthy. He has to pay his mortgage.
And yes, he is delusional. He’s always wanted to president. On the tapes, he talked about appointing himself to the Senate to set up a 2016 run. Even before this scandal, he had a 13 percent approval rating. His response? He was going to get the people of Illinois to “love me again.” As much as he loves himself, perhaps?
Rockville, Md.: Is there any indication that Burris may have been one of the potential candidates referred to in the federal charges against Blagojevich for having offered to pay for the seat?
Edward McClelland: No. Burris is not one of the seven Senate candidates on the tape, which I’m sure was a qualification for the appointment.
Burris did lobby the governor for the job—he even held a press conference to promote himself—but Blagojevich never seriously considered him. Burris was seen as a political has-been, having lost four straight elections since 1994. So while he may not be tainted by involvement in Blagojevich’s attempt to sell the Senate seat, he’s may not be as high a caliber a senator as we would have gotten if the governor was free to choose anyone he wanted.
Vienna, Va.: It’s crazy to me that there aren’t more African American Senators. Is there any chance that one of the other open seats might go to an African American? Or is Burris the only hope?
Edward McClelland: I don’t know about the other open Senate seats. But if Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn ascends to the governorship and makes a competing appointment, I’m sure it will be an African-American—maybe Rep. Danny Davis, who was Blagojevich’s first choice. The fact is, Illinois has elected two of the three black senators since Reconstruction. That is a matter of great pride here, and some people think it’s our role to provide a black senator.
Charlottesville, Va.: You noted in your story that the Illinois Secretary of State may not certify Burris for the seat—what exactly does that mean and by what grounds would the Secy make that call?
Edward McClelland: I’m not sure that he can legally refuse. The Illinois Constitution says it’s his job to endorse the governor’s appointments. On the other hand, he’s joined the game of legal chicken between Blagojevich and the Senate. Blagojevich is saying, “I dare you to reject my appointee.” The Senate is saying, “Oh yeah, go ahead and sue.”
Crofton, Va.: What does this all mean for Jesse Jackson, Jr.? Are his chances at a future Senate run over?
Edward McClelland: I think Jesse Jackson Jr. would have been a hard sell as a Senate candidate to begin with. There was some concern, when open seat was first discussed, that he wouldn’t be able to hold it in 2010. Now that he appears to have been bargaining for the seat with Blagojevich, his Senate prospects look even dimmer.
D.C.: Why do you think Blagojevich picked Burris as opposed to someone else? Is Burris so far beyond reproach that Blago imagines that it helps his case and makes him look more honest? Or is it just that Burris is the only one that would have accepted, for the reasons you discussed above?
Edward McClelland: I think it’s a little bit of both. Burris made through 16 years in Springfield without getting into a scandal, which is a huge accomplishment in Illinois. Even Republicans are calling him honest. Also, Burris was hungry to get back into politics, and, unlike other potentials, had nothing to lose. His political career was dead before this.
And of course, he’s African-American. That allows Blagojevich to confound the Senate with racial politics, and appeal to blacks in Chicago, who are about the only friends he has left here.
Insanity: What is taking the Illinois government so long to get Blagojevich out of power? This whole debacle is amazing to me in its inefficiency. You noted earlier that no one has questioned Blago’s ability to pardon criminals or sign legislation since he’s been charged. I next expect to see him issue an edict that would pardon himself from any future conviction of wrongdoing—and get away with it!
Edward McClelland: As a lawmaking body, the General Assembly has to follow the law. Blagojevich is entitled to due process in impeachment proceedings. If he doesn’t get it, he could conceivably sue to prevent his removal. Lt. Gov. Quinn hopes the Senate will convict Blagojevich before Lincoln’s 200th birthday, which is Feb. 12. (No one wants to see him on the dais at the Lincoln Library!) That may be soon. Blagojevich’s lawyer, Ed Genson, is a master of delay. He kept R. Kelly out of court for six years.
Washington, D.C.: Any word on what Patrick Fitzgerald thinks about all of this? He’s an interesting figure in this investigation—he seems determined not to let Blagojevich get away with his crimes. Has Fitzgerald ever investigated Burris for any reason?
Edward McClelland: Patrick Fitzgerald has never investigated Burris because Burris was out of office long before Fitzgerald arrived.
When Fitzgerald announced the complaint against Blagojevich, I wondered how much the timing had to do with the fact that a Democrat was about to take over the White House, and potentially choose a new U.S. Attorney. Obama had voiced admiration for Fitz before, but after this, he committed to keeping him on. It would have looked shady for a Chicago Democrat to throw out a Republican U.S. Attorney while he was investigating another Chicago Democrat.
Fitzgerald has refused to comment on the Senate appointment.
So…: …if the Senate rejects Burris, then what? A special election? An appointment by Harry Reid or Obama himself once he takes office? This all seems so over the top!
Edward McClelland: I would expect Burris to sue for this Senate seat.
Harry Reid or Obama can’t make an appointment. It can only come from Illinois.
Bobby Rush is trying to rally the Congressional Black Caucus behind the appointment. It is over the top. On the Early Show, he was comparing Harry Reid to Orval Faubus and Bull Connor.
Detroit, Mich.: What’s the latest on Mrs. Blagojevich? Is she still out in the world bleeping at people? Or has she been trying to keep a lower profile?
Edward McClelland: I haven’t heard anything from Patti since her husband was arrested. I wasn’t surprised to hear her use that language, though. After all, he father is an alderman.
Washington, D.C.: Everyone agrees that Burris has violated no laws by accepting the appointment but some are attempting to assert that he has violated some vague ethical standard.
In truth, the issue is pure politics. Some of the people complaining either wanted to be appointed by the Lt. Governor or wanted to be elected in a special election. Of course, the Lt. Governor conducted a diatribe against the appointment that was so bitter it seemed Blagojevich had disrupted delicate negotiations of some sort.
What standard of conduct that existed prior to Fitzgerald’s media event is Burris accused of violating?
Edward McClelland: Burris hasn’t been accused of violating any standard of ethical conduct. It’s guilt by association with Blagojevich. If Blagojevich is smart, he’ll disappear and let this become about Roland Burris, a 71-year-old with an honest record as a public servant, the son of a railroad worker who grew up in a small town in central Illinois, and got started in politics by integrating the public pool. It’s tough to be against a senator like that.
The big question: Are Blago’s aides sticking by him? And are they keeping good track of “the football” (his Paul Mitchell hairbrush)?
Edward McClelland: Blagojevich’s aides aren’t sticking by him. His chief of staff resigned the week of the arrest, and his legal counsel resigned this week. The “football” is entrusted to his state police detail, so as long as he’s governor, he’ll be able to maintain his high standard of personal grooming.
Washington, D.C.: Isn’t it sort of odd to criticize Burris for failing to advance through a corrupt system? He has been elected statewide four times, which, barring a special election, is the most democratic credential anyone can bring to a controversial situation.
Edward McClelland: Burris does have excellent credentials for the Senate. However, reaching the top of Illinois politics doesn’t necessarily mean you’re corrupt. Adlai Stevenson, Paul Simon and Barack Obama both got there.
Oakland, Calif.: Could Blagojevich have been ordered not to perform his duties? If so, who would determine that and how? (Good point that no one’s contested his approval of bills and pardons.)
The choice of Burris was audacious and well-considered for benefit to Blagojevich rather than Illinois. Thank you for the clarification of issues.
Edward McClelland: The only way Blagojevich can be ordered not to perform his duties is through impeachment. We’re going through that process now, but until it’s completed, he’s governor.
Wilmington, N.C.: Mr. McClelland, that was great re: Burris’ tombstone; what a hoot, in a good way. With the situation with the economy and soon-to-be-approached stimulus plan, shouldn’t our great leaders be busying themselves with more important issues? Or is it only one separate committee that would be involved the possible impeachment proceedings?
Edward McClelland: Right now, it’s one separate committee of the Illinois General Assembly. But impeachment could soon consume all of Springfield, and the fight over seating Burris could consume the Senate. I agree that we have more important issues. The Senate should seat Burris and let the voters of Illinois work this out in 2010.
Edward McClelland: Thanks for all your great questions, everyone. Hope I was able to illuminate you about this situation. Keep an eye on Chicago politics. There’s always something interesting happening here. Great day!