In a display of political bravado, disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday appointed former Illinois Atty. Gen. Roland Burris to the U.S. Senate, challenging national Democratic leaders to reject the appointment of an African-American to the seat that propelled Barack Obama to the White House.
The defiant move tests the resolve of Senate Democrats who said they would not admit anyone appointed by Blagojevich, who is facing impeachment after being accused of trying to sell the Senate seat for personal gain. And it reveals to a nation celebrating Obama's victory the underbelly of Chicago's race-based political scene.
Obama supported the announcement by Senate Democrats that Blagojevich's appointment "will ultimately not stand," but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada now faces a difficult political situation amid uncertainties that an attempt to block Burris from taking office can withstand a legal challenge. Burris, Illinois' first statewide elected African-American, wants entry into a chamber that no longer has any blacks.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago, appearing at Blagojevich's announcement at Burris' invitation, underscored the role of race in the governor's decision by using racially charged terms to defend the appointment.
"I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer," said Rush, who promised to lobby congressional leaders on Burris' behalf.
"That was excellent Bobby. Thank you," Blagojevich said to Rush. The governor then turned to reporters and said, "Feel free to castigate the appointer but don't lynch the appointer. I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing!"
While Democrats on all levels were quick to castigate the governor, who was arrested three weeks ago on allegations he tried to sell Obama's former Senate seat, they were careful not to accuse Burris of any taint associated with Blagojevich. Still, questions remained why the former three-term state comptroller and one-term attorney general, nearly 14 years removed from holding statewide elected office, would accept the appointment when others who had sought it shied away after the governor's arrest.
Burris has long sought a jump to higher office, failing in three primary bids for governor in 1994, 1998 and, in 2002 against Blagojevich, as well as campaigns for Chicago mayor in 1995 and U.S. senator in 1984. In accepting the appointment, he refused to discuss Blagojevich's alleged criminal activities or whether he believed the governor should step down.
"I am not a tool of the governor. I'm a tool of the people of Illinois," Burris told the Tribune Tuesday evening. "If I was worried about the taint [of Blagojevich], I would never have accepted that. I don't have any taint from Gov. Blagojevich."
Burris, who has always maintained an outsized political ego even larger than that required of most politicians, said he thought Blagojevich picked "the most qualified person in the state of Illinois to . . . serve out the term of Barack Obama."
Yet Burris was the second of two post-arrest finalists for Blagojevich when the governor offered him the job Sunday night. U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, a black congressman from the West Side, said he was offered the post by a Blagojevich representative a week ago and told the governor's office Friday he declined the offer.
Davis had said he would reject a Blagojevich appointment because the governor had "lost his moral authority" and would rather see "a governor who is not tainted" make the appointment. But on Tuesday, Davis said he would support Burris' selection.
Burris has given more than $20,000 to Blagojevich's campaign fund on his own and through his consulting and law firms, state campaign finance records show. Burris' consulting company received about $290,000 in state contracts with the Illinois Department of Transportation a few years ago, according to state comptroller records. Some of the clients Burris' firm lobbied for also got state business.
Blagojevich had supported efforts proposed by the leaders of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to approve legislation that would remove the unfettered power of the governor to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat in favor of a special election. But Blagojevich said the legislature's decision not to move forward left him no choice.
"If I don't make this appointment, then the people of Illinois will be deprived of their appropriate voice and vote in the United States Senate," Blagojevich said.
The governor called Burris an individual of "unquestioned integrity, extensive experience," adding "Please, don't allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man."
But early word about the governor's surprise move prompted U.S. Senate Democratic leaders to hold a conference call during which they decided not to seat Burris or any other Blagojevich appointee. Shortly after Blagojevich's arrest, Reid, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and the other Senate Democrats asked Blagojevich to resign and warned any appointee would not be allowed to serve.
On Tuesday, Senate Democratic leadership said "anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative" for Illinois because they "would serve under a shadow and be plagued by questions of impropriety."
The governor said his appointment was about Burris, not himself. While he told reporters that "I don't want to hog the limelight," Blagojevich's brazen move was very much about the governor and his future.
Blagojevich's public support has plummeted sharply, even before his arrest, but the governor still maintained sizable support from the African-American community. In dismissing the threat of Democratic U.S. senators, Blagojevich said he was "absolutely confident and certain" that Burris would be seated in the Senate and Rush said, "I don't think that anyone, any U.S. senator who's sitting the Senate right now, wants to go on record to deny one African American from being seated in the U.S. Senate."
U.S. Rep. Janice Schakowsky, an Evanston Democrat and once a close Blagojevich ally, told CNN the governor's appointment was "in some ways . . . a shrewd, if not cynical move."Blagojevich's move didn't play well in Springfield either.
"I think you'll find that members of the impeachment committee will not be pleased with this development," said committee member and state Rep. Lou Lang (D- Skokie), adding that "the timing is so wrong as to put a cloud over the appointment."
Republicans also used Blagojevich's decision to resurrect their call for a special election and to attack the state legislature's Democratic majority as enablers for allowing the governor to keep his appointment power.
Tribune reporters Monique Garcia, John Chase, Mike Dorning and Hal Dardick contributed to this report.