Ill. Gov. Blagojevich Makes Senate Pick Over Democrats' Objections
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Brushing aside the objections of Democratic leaders, embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich selected former state attorney general Roland W. Burris yesterday to take the Senate seat previously held by President-elect Barack Obama, setting up a potential constitutional showdown.
In a raucous news conference in Chicago in which Blagojevich (D) announced that he intended to name Burris to the seat, both men highlighted Burris's potential to continue the legacy of an African American representing the state in the Senate.
"As governor, I am required to make this appointment. 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," the governor said.
Blagojevich played down efforts at the state Capitol to impeach him after federal officials charged him with trying to sell the appointment in exchange for personal financial assistance, and he asked Illinois voters not to "allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man." Burris told reporters that he has "no relationship" with the Blagojevich scandal and vowed to "uphold the integrity of the office." He declined to say whether he would pursue the full six-year Senate term in 2010.
In a joint statement, five Senate Democratic leaders vowed to block the appointment, arguing that Blagojevich is unfit to make the selection. "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," the leaders said in a statement issued minutes before the governor's announcement.
In a statement issued in Hawaii, Obama called Burris "a good man and a fine public servant," but the president-elect said he supports the position taken by Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and other Democratic leaders in opposing the selection.
"They cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat. I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it. I believe the best resolution would be for the Governor to resign his office," Obama said.
Experts on congressional procedure said the Constitution gives the Senate wide power in determining who can be seated in the chamber, and some suggested that Democrats might decline to seat Burris while a Senate panel investigates the appointment process. Such a move might allow the Illinois legislature enough time to conclude its impeachment process, at which point Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) could assume the governor's office and make his own appointment.
Senate rules also require the signature of the Illinois secretary of state, Jesse White, certifying the appointment, and yesterday White indicated that he did not plan to sign the certification.
Burris, 71, is a Chicago native who was the first African American elected to statewide office in Illinois, winning a race for comptroller in the late 1970s. After three terms overseeing the state's finances, he served a four-year term as attorney general before running unsuccessfully in the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary. That was the first of three unsuccessful bids for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, the last of which came in 2002, when Burris finished third in a contest that Blagojevich won. Obama, then a state senator, backed Burris in that race.
Burris does not appear to have deep or longtime connections to Blagojevich, nor was he among the five candidates the governor and his top aide were heard discussing as potential appointees on FBI surveillance recordings, portions of which were included in criminal filings accusing the governor of several felonies. For the past decade, Burris has been a partner in a consulting firm and a law firm that have received some government work, mostly, he said, to ensure that the state government was complying with regulations requiring that a certain portion of its contracts are awarded to minority-owned businesses.
Burris's consulting firm contributed about $11,000 to Blagojevich's gubernatorial campaigns in 2002 and 2006, according to records compiled by the Better Government Association, an Illinois watchdog.