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Degrees of Separation? Not in Illinois Politics.

In August 2001, Rod Blagojevich, right, and Roland Burris were Democratic gubernatorial candidates campaigning at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.
In August 2001, Rod Blagojevich, right, and Roland Burris were Democratic gubernatorial candidates campaigning at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. (By Seth Perlman -- Associated Press)

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By Eli Saslow and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama spent yesterday afternoon in Honolulu, going to the zoo with his daughters and visiting his high school campus. And yet, he couldn't escape the political melodrama unfolding more than 4,000 miles away.

While Obama vacationed, some of the main characters from his political past took turns starring in a bizarre Chicago news conference. First to the lectern was embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was arrested this month on federal corruption charges, and from whom Obama has worked to distance himself. Blagojevich then introduced Roland Burris, his appointment to fill Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate. Burris once held a fundraiser at his house for Obama and calls the president-elect "somebody whose career I really helped launch."

Then, near the end of the news conference, Rep. Bobby L. Rush was beckoned to the front of the room, where he asked the public not to "lynch" Burris because of the charges against Blagojevich. Rush defeated Obama in a 2000 House race and chided him as an "educated fool" before eventually endorsing him for president and asserting that "I helped teach him."

Obama has not talked with the men in the past few weeks, friends said, and some of the president-elect's associates dismissed his connection to the trio as coincidence. But, if nothing else, the image of all three standing together in front of flashing cameras served as a reminder of the political environment in which Obama developed: Blagojevich is awaiting an indictment; Burris may be blocked from claiming the Senate seat by leaders in Illinois and Washington; and Rush pushed for a black senator to replace Obama, who prefers not to participate in "the politics of race."

After the news conference, Obama released a statement commending Burris as a "good man and a fine public servant," before arguing that he should not be given the Senate seat. Illinois, he said, is "entitled to . . . major decisions free of taint and controversy." Obama avoided mentioning race.

It is that "taint" of controversy with which Obama has become associated during the past month. He never liked Blagojevich, friends said, and federal transcripts confirmed that Obama never spoke with the Illinois governor as the latter allegedly tried to auction off the vacant Senate seat. Yet the men giving yesterday's news conference served as important components in Obama's career.

Obama endorsed Burris in the Democratic primary for governor in 2002, which Blagojevich won. Burris said in an interview this month that he "probably introduced [Obama] to Blagojevich after that" and persuaded Obama to join him in endorsing their fellow Democrat. In 2004, Burris endorsed Obama for the U.S. Senate and held a fundraiser.

"We all know each other, because we're all in the same business," Burris said this month. "We might not all like each other all of the time, but we're running in the same big circle."

Burris said he has not spoken to Obama since Nov. 4, but he pursued Obama's seat. He found a supporter of sorts in Rush, who held a news conference last month insisting that Illinois replace Obama with a black senator. Rush said that he did not back a specific candidate but that "we really are about the principle that there should be an African American." Obama was the only African American in the Senate.

Yesterday, Burris spotted Rush in the crowd at the news conference and pointed gleefully. "How you doing, Congressman?" he asked. "All righty." Burris eventually summoned Rush to the lectern. Rush wasted no time before invoking Obama's name.

"My prayers have been answered," Rush said, "because I prayed fervently that the governor would continue the legacy established by President-elect Obama, and that the governor would appoint an African American to complete the term of President Obama."

One of Rush's colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), told the Associated Press last night that he had been offered the appointment last week but that he turned it down because "I thought the environment had been poisoned."

It wasn't the first time race had come up between Rush and Obama. Rush, a former Black Panther who represents Chicago's South Side, defeated Obama in 2000 because he dominated the black vote. During the campaign, he collected the endorsements of almost every major black politician in Chicago -- including Burris -- and depicted Obama as a foreigner to black culture. "Barack is a person who read about the civil rights protests and thinks he knows all about it," Rush said.

Activist Al Sharpton said yesterday: "I think that Governor Blagojevich is trying to save himself and cynically trying to draw the president-elect into this. But President-elect Obama should stay out of this. The worst thing that he could do is be drawn back into Illinois politics."

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.


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