In naming Roland Burris, a longtime African-American politician in Illinois who has served as the state’s comptroller and attorney general in the past, Governor Blagojevich acted within his legal rights, as the sitting governor. But the appointment ran counter to the wishes of the Illinois legislature, all 50 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and the governor’s own previously stated intentions.
“Please don’t allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man,” Blagojevich stated in a press conference, referring to the criminal charges that claim that, among other things, he tried to “sell” the Senate appointment. Blagojevich defended his action by saying that he had a legal obligation to make the appointment.
Reactions to news of the appointment were swift and generally negative.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White declared that he won’t accept any paperwork that Blagojevich files to name a new senator because of “the current cloud of controversy surrounding the governor.” The Illinois legislature has initiated impeachment proceedings against Blagojevich.
Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who is poised to take over as governor if Blagojevich is impeached, held his own news conference shortly after the governor made his announcement, declaring that “the people of Illinois have come to the conclusion that [Blagojevich] is not fit to be governor, and therefore he is not fit to make any appointment to the United States Senate.”
Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s office issued a statement reaffirming the unanimous decision by the Senate Democratic Caucus not to seat a senator named by Blagojevich, declaring that “it is truly regrettable that despite requests from all 50 Democratic senators and public officials throughout Illinois, Gov. Blagojevich would take the imprudent step of appointing someone to the United States Senate who would serve under a shadow and be plagued by questions of impropriety.”
The statement added that “This is not about Mr. Burris, it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat.” It added that the appointment “is unfair to Mr. Burris, it is unfair to the people of Illinois, and it will ultimately not stand.”
The announcement was a surprise to many, since Blagojevich’s lawyer had stated earlier that in light of the Senate’s declaration, he would not make any appointment to the seat.
But it came after a tough day for the governor in the impeachment hearings in the state capital, and some observers say it’s a classic Blagojevich move to try to appear defiant and go on the offensive.
“This is one more grand play to show that somehow he’s still relevant and still governor,” says Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield. It’s unlikely that Burris will ever be seated as senator, says Professor Redfield. This announcement “is about Rod, which it almost always is.”
More surprising, says Redfield, is that “the governor found somebody who would take the appointment.”
Burris, the man the governor chose, is an elderly political consultant and a fairly familiar name in Illinois politics, though he has lost his last four bids for public office. He was defeated in the primaries in three gubernatorial elections and one attempt to run for mayor of Chicago. Prior to those defeats, he served as Illinois’s comptroller from 1979 to 1991 – the first African-American elected to statewide office in Illinois – and as attorney general from 1991 to 1995.
As he defended his decision to accept the appointment, saying that “we need leadership in Washington,” Burris got some support from US Rep. Bobby Rush (D) of Illinois, who came to the podium and declared that he would lobby the Senate to accept the appointment.
“Roland Burris is worthy,” Congressman Rush declared, noting that the Senate currently has no
African-American members and pleading that people “separate the appointee from the appointer.”
But others are critical and say they hope that Burris, once he sees the opposition to the move, will withdraw his name.
“I’m surprised anybody would accept this,” says Jay Stewart, director of the Better Government Association, a Chicago government watchdog group. “To accept this appointment is to embrace and enable Rod Blagojevich.”