Mr. Burris and Racial Politics – Goes to Washington

The mess surrounding Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has gotten messier now that he has outfoxed his political opponents, at least for now, by appointing Roland Burris, the first African-American to win statewide office in Illinois, to fill the vacated Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama.

The drama being played out in the nation’s capital this week is the Black version of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a 70-year old film about political corruption that involves a naïve man being appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate.

With favorability ratings mirroring those of George W. Bush, it was difficult to imagine things getting much worse for the brash Illinois governor. But they did. On Dec. 9, he was arrested on federal corruption charges. The criminal complaint accused Blagojevich, among other things, of trying to sell Obama’s senate seat.

Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and others have asked Blagojevich to resign, saying he has lost his ability to govern effectively. Impeachment proceedings were announced and are expected to get underway this week in Springfield.

The problem for Democratic leaders, however, is that so far, Blagojevich has not been formally indicted, let alone convicted, for any crime. And even if he were indicted, he still would be entitled to the presumption of innocence. Second, they are objecting to the governor filling the Senate seat while allowing him to perform other duties of the office. Until Blagojevich resigns or is removed from office, he is still the state’s duly elected governor.

State lawmakers could have ended the controversy over Obama’s successor last month by declaring a special election, but they failed to act, leaving the door open for Blagojevich. In a shrewd political move, the governor selected Burris, who held two statewide offices in the past — comptroller and attorney general – to fill the vacancy.

By offering the job to an African-American, Gov. Blagojevich knew that he would be placing White Democrats in the uncomfortable position of opposing the lone Black candidate for the U.S. senate. He also correctly calculated that the Black community would rally around the nomination.

At the news conference announcing the appointment, Congressman Bobby Rush said: “Let me just remind you that there presently is no African-American in the U.S. Senate. I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate they appointer. I don’t think that anyone, any U.S. senator who’s sitting in the Senate right now, want to go on record to deny this African-American from being seated, seated in the U.S. Senate.”

Rush, a former Black Panther Party leader, conveniently forgot that he attempted to do just that in 2004 when he endorsed a White candidate for the senate, Blair Hull, over Obama in the Democratic primary. Rush was evidently still smarting over Obama’s decision four years earlier to challenge his congressional seat.

But Blacks are not the only ones playing the so-called race card.

If Blagojevich can be believed – and that’s a big if, given the accusations against him – Senate Majority Leader Reid also injected race in a discussion with the governor about filling the Obama vacancy.

According to aides to Blagojevich, the senate majority leader, concerned about the seat remaining in Democratic hands, recommended the appointment of two White women, Attorney General Lisa Madigan or Tammy Duckworth, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, over Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny Davis and state senate president Emil Jones, all African-Americans.

In an appearance Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Reid said, “This is part of Blagojevich’s cloud. He’s making all of this up.”

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had the temerity to weigh in on the race issue.

He said, \”For the last several weeks, Sen. Reid has led the charge to deny the people of Illinois a voice in choosing their next U.S. Senator in a special election. Now we learn that Sen. Reid also took the extraordinary step to lobby against two sitting U.S. Congressmen and the State Senate Majority Leader in Illinois, and instead told Gov. Blagojevich that he supported an appointment for an individual who recently lost a U.S. House election. The people of Illinois deserve a simple explanation from Senator Reid — why does he believe these three Illinois officeholders are \’unelectable\’ to the U.S. Senate?\”

Hold on. Time out. Republicans do not have a single African-American represented in either the House or Senate and they are calling out Democrats on the issue of race? And the few times that Black Republicans were elected in recent years, all came from districts that were at least 95 percent White.

This must be a bad movie — it can’t be reality.

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