Blacks Conflicted About Supporting Appointee

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

A day after an announcement that shook Illinois politics, African American politicians and activists remain divided about supporting embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich's surprise choice to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the Senate.

Since Blagojevich (D) tapped Roland W. Burris, a former state attorney general and the first black politician to be elected statewide in Illinois, for the seat on Tuesday, Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) has repeatedly invoked the importance of replacing Obama with another African American. And while Burris's qualifications are receiving near-universal praise from black elected officials, some are questioning the way in which he gained the appointment because of the complicated legal situation surrounding Blagojevich, whom federal officials have charged with attempting to auction Obama's seat to the highest bidder.

"I understand Congressman Rush's concern about having an African American senator, but there are concerns about the cloud that has gone on regarding the current governor," said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (R-N.Y.). "His qualifications are impeccable, his name has not been involved in scandal, but that has to be considered."

Karen A. Yarbrough, an Illinois state representative who represents a district just outside of Chicago, said: "I don't think this governor should be appointing."

But Marc H. Morial, the head of the National Urban League, defended the selection of Burris and questioned setting the precedent of allowing the Senate to reject controversial appointments, calling "very, very limited" the power Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has suggested the Senate may attempt to exercise.

"He is by far the most qualified person that I know," Constance A. Howard, an Illinois state representative whose district is in Chicago, said of Burris. "I would just hope that we can resolve this without excluding him in the United States Senate. I wish we could somehow look at the person being nominated and not have to be concerned about the person doing the nominating."

Key Democrats' opposition to the Burris appointment continued yesterday, after initial condemnation of Blagojevich's decision on Tuesday from both Senate Democrats and Obama. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White refused to co-sign the proclamation from Blagojevich that certifies the appointment, although White's office said the governor could forward it to the Senate without his signature.

Yesterday, Burris filed a motion with the Illinois Supreme Court asking it to compel "the Secretary of State to countersign and affix the state seal to the Governor's commission appointing Roland Burris to the United States Senate."

Democratic leadership aides in the Senate said the controversy could be referred to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which would investigate the appointment. The move would also offer Democrats a way to stall the process while Illinois legislators consider whether to impeach the governor.

Blagojevich's selection of Burris, which came despite the urgings of Democrats in Illinois and Washington that he not appoint anyone to the seat while he remains under investigation, appeared intended to garner support from African Americans and improve his own political situation, while also making it difficult for Democrats in the nation's capital to oppose the appointment.

As part of the media blitz yesterday, Burris said he will prepare to serve as a senator regardless of Blagojevich's legal issues. "I don't look upon the governor's problem as my problem," he said on CNN's "American Morning." "I look at the governor's problems as his problems. . . . I'm very well qualified and we will move on with my being the junior senator from the great state of Illinois."

And Rush, who has a complicated relationship with Obama since the president-elect unsuccessfully challenged him in a primary contest for Rush's House seat in 2000, continued to use sharp racial rhetoric in calling for the appointment.

"The recent history of our nation has shown us that sometimes there could be individuals and there could be situations . . . where you have officials standing in the doorway of schoolchildren," he said on CBS's "The Early Show." "You know, I'm talking about all of us back in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas. I'm talking about George Wallace, Bull Connor, and I'm sure that the U.S. Senate don't want to see themselves placed in the same position."

He added: "The real political tragedy, the real political issue, the moral issue that we face is why in the U.S. Senate there are no African Americans."

Black activists and politicians largely distanced themselves from Rush's tone.

"As much as I would like there to be a black in the Senate, we should not turn around and impose any kind of racial litmus test," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a former Democratic presidential candidate and longtime civil rights advocate who said he has not taken a position on the appointment.

And even among Burris's backers, it is unclear whether a groundswell of support will develop that forces Senate Democrats to change their minds. Some officials, including Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), said they back Burris but do not plan to organize against the strong opposition to Blagojevich's decision by contacting White, Senate Democrats or Obama.

"I support Roland Burris as a candidate unconditionally, but I'm not really interested in promoting any additional division," Davis said. "I'm not going to go out there waving a flag for him."

Davis had been offered the seat first by Blagojevich but said he did not accept it because "the environment was too murky for me." And both Sharpton and Davis said Obama's pointed opposition to the appointment could make it difficult for other blacks to support Burris.

"One of the things that the civil rights community should do is respect the president-elect," Sharpton said. "He's made a public statement, and media will play it as if we're against him."

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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