U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Gov. Rod Blagojevich "corrupt" Sunday and accused him of trying to divert attention from his criminal case by falsely alleging Reid opposed African-American candidates seeking Illinois' Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
Blagojevich's Senate appointee, former Illinois Atty. Gen. Roland Burris, said he would take Reid at his word about his conversation with the governor. But on the eve of traveling to Washington, where Senate Democratic leaders have vowed to refuse to seat him Tuesday, Burris declared himself the state's newest senator.
"I am now the junior senator from the state of Illinois. Some people, they want to doubt that. That is their right," Burris said Sunday night at a Chicago prayer service on his behalf at New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, 740 E. 77th St. But Burris noted the several hundred supporters in the predominantly African-American audience and said, "You are the real determining factor."
Burris once again pledged not to create "any theater" at the nation's Capitol, and Reid sounded a similar conciliatory note by refusing to rule out the possibility that Burris would be seated against the wishes of Senate Democrats.
The prayer service was organized by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who has accused Senate Democrats of using racial motivations to refuse to seat Burris, Illinois' first statewide elected black official. On Sunday night, Rush called the Senate "one of the last bastions of plantation and racial politics in America" and said Senate Democrats who won't seat Burris are "going to have to come and ask for forgiveness" from black Americans.
Obama, who had been the lone African-American in the Senate until winning the White House, has sided with Senate Democrats. But Rush said the president-elect had been "ill advised" and, because Obama focused on the nation's economic crisis, the Illinois Senate seat was "not one of [Obama's] priorities."
Senate Democrats have said they would not seat Burris or anyone appointed by Blagojevich, who has been accused by federal prosecutors of using his office to try to enrich himself, including auctioning off Obama's Senate seat. Reid, appearing earlier Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," criticized those who sought to portray the issue along racial lines.
"Blagojevich obviously is a corrupt individual," Reid said. "[For] anyone to suggest anything racial is part of the Blagojevich spin to take away from the corruption that's involved in his office in Illinois."
Reid would not say outright that Burris would not be seated and noted there was "always room to negotiate." But the Nevada Democrat also defended the Senate's right to reject Burris and called the appointment "tainted" because of the scandal surrounding Blagojevich, who was arrested last month.
"We're going to do what we have to do," Reid said.
Reid and his top deputy in Senate Democratic leadership, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, also rejected reports that Reid, in a telephone call to Blagojevich prior to the governor's arrest, expressed doubts about the electability in 2010 of three African-American contenders to fill the vacancy— Chicago Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis, and state Senate President Emil Jones Jr.
Reid accused Blagojevich of "making all this up" and denied saying "who not to appoint." Durbin, on ABC's "This Week," likewise pointed the finger at the two-term Democratic governor.
"It's an outrage that the Blagojevich people, in the last days of their administration, facing impeachment in Springfield, are now flailing in every direction, trying to show defiance in the appointment of Roland Burris and attacking everybody in sight," Durbin said. Such tactics, Durbin said, were "just plain wrong, and the people of Illinois see through it."
Blagojevich has said that he is innocent of the criminal charges against him and that his actions do not warrant impeachment.
Reid, Durbin and Burris are scheduled to meet in Washington on Wednesday.
In Springfield on Sunday, members of a special Illinois House investigative panel began work on their report, which could lead to a committee recommendation of impeachment against Blagojevich that could be sent to the full House for a vote late this week.
One panel member, state Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago), noted the swearing-in of a new General Assembly next week makes it doubtful that a Senate trial of Blagojevich would quickly follow any House vote this week. Fritchey said that if the House moves to impeach Blagojevich this week, it may be forced to redo the vote next week after its new members are sworn-in.
"Procedurally, you may have Gov. Blagojevich not only be the first governor impeached in Illinois, but be the first governor to be impeached twice within a period of a week," Fritchey said in an interview on WGN-AM 720.
State Rep. Roger Eddy (R-Hutsonville), another member of the panel, said he understands the frustration of a public looking for quick action on Blagojevich.
"Based on what I've read [of the evidence], I'm coming to a pretty clear and convinced conclusion regarding the behavior of this governor as it relates to his duty as the governor," Eddy said.
As state lawmakers geared up for the formal impeachment process, members of several community groups stood outside an unfinished charter school on Chicago's Southwest Side and joined calls for Blagojevich's resignation. Juan Rangel, CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization, contended the governor was playing politics by failing to release $4 million approved by lawmakers for the school's construction in 2007. The school was forced to open without a gymnasium or cafeteria, organizers said.
"We are praying as pastors and churches for a solution," said Rev. Daniel Alvarez, who heads the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors. "We cannot continue how this is going."
Tribune reporter Mike Dorning contributed from Washington.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun