In what is shaping up to be an unprecedented political row, disgraced Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois has named former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to replace Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate.
The problem is that the chances of Mr. Burris — a well respected, squeaky clean, more than qualified African-American — ever taking his seat in the Senate chamber are not very good. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released a statement regarding the Burris appointment where he flatly rejects the idea of seating anyone chosen by the current Illinois governor, who is accused of trying to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder:
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. We say this without prejudice toward Roland Burris’s ability, and we respect his years of public service. But this is not about Mr. Burris; it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat. Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus.
The statement also called on Blagojevich to “put the interests of the people of Illinois and all Americans first by stepping aside now and letting his successor appoint someone who we will seat.” The statement was endorsed by Illinois’ senior senator, Dick Durbin, who has been calling for a special election to fill the vacancy — something many local Democrats wish to avoid due to the possibility that a Republican might win.
On the heels of Reid’s denial of Burris’s appointment, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White stated flatly that he would not certify any candidate offered by Blagojevich, saying:
As I have previously stated publicly, I cannot co-sign a document that certifies any appointment by Rod Blagojevich for the vacant United States Senate seat from Illinois.
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.
It is unclear whether White has the statutory authority to deny Blagojevich his choice or whether any certification in the matter is necessary by the Illinois secretary of state.
On the surface, this was a brilliant stroke by Blagojevich. By rolling the dice and naming Burris, he puts the onus of rejecting a supremely qualified African-American candidate smack on Senator Reid’s shoulders while perhaps even currying favor with Illinois blacks. In addition, if Reid were somehow to reverse himself, the drive for impeachment would slow considerably. The process had already been reduced to a crawl as a result of the holidays, and any urgency to impeach Blagojevich would dissipate because the idea was to get him out of office quickly so that he couldn’t name Obama’s successor.
To those who might wonder why this changes anything with regard to impeachment, it is important to remember that in Illinois politics all politicians are guilty until convicted. Then they are simply unelectable. Illinois House Democrats will move no faster than they have to. And if the Senate accepts Burris (or is forced to accept him), impeachment will proceed much more deliberatively.
Burris served from 1979-1991 as comptroller of the state and from 1991-1995 as attorney general. He is currently head of Burris & Lebed Consulting of Chicago, a high powered lobbying and consulting firm that, according to the Chicago Sun Times, has gotten nearly $295,000 in state contracts since 2004. Burris and his partners have donated more than $20,000 to Blagojevich since 2004.
In the news conference introducing him, Burris alluded to the idea that he was pleased Blagojevich had named another African-American to replace Obama and he pleaded with his “good friend” Senator Dick Durbin to talk with him about being accepted by the Senate. And it appears virtually certain that Blagojevich will fight to seat his choice, as Burris said during the press conference, “I welcome the challenge that awaits us.”
If that means a court battle as well as a PR offensive where Blago and Burris would appeal to the African-American community to get behind the choice, this could mean trouble for Harry Reid. And as far as the legal issues involved — dicey for the Senate majority leader:
In the past, the Senate has ruled on appointments where the power of an outgoing governor to make an appointment was unclear. But as of now, there seems little question that Blagojevich is still the governor; the state legislature has not changed the appointment power; and as of now, Blagojevich has not been convicted, or even indicted.
By contrast, the Senate may well have more Constitutional power to expel a Senator than to refuse to seat one. But that raises the dicey political question: would the Senate really want to expel a qualified, experienced political veteran who has never been tainted with any scandal? And who, by the way, would be the only African-American in that body?
The longer the controversy lasts, the greater the chance that real friction would heat up the situation. If Reid and the Democrats were to stick to their guns, it could not only cost them black support, but it would be a big distraction as the House and Senate start a new term faced with the large and consequential issues relating to the economy. It would be one more headache Obama and the Democrats could ill afford to suffer.
One can understand Burris accepting the offer — tainted as it is — considering the fact that he has run several times for higher office including two Democratic primaries for governor and once in 1995 in the Democratic primary for Chicago mayor. No one questions his competency or integrity. But he is hardly a ball of fire on the stump, and while proven to be a good organizer, he has never inspired much passion in his unsuccessful runs for Chicago mayor and governor.
Now he and Blagojevich find themselves standing in unprecedented territory. The Senate has never refused to seat anyone in this situation and if Reid were to do so, he might get high marks for integrity but suffer a political black eye with others.
Blagojevich has hit a 120 mph serve into Reid’s court. It’s now up to the majority leader to see what he can do with the return.