Roland W. Burris, Burris Blagojevich, Blagojevich picks Burris as senator
Ted S. Warren/AP
Roland Burris

Blagojevich Taps Burris as Obama’s Senate Replacement

December 30, 2008 03:57 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, still fighting corruption charges, has picked former Ill. Attorney General Roland W. Burris to assume Sen. Barack Obama’s position.

Burris Picked to Succeed Obama in U.S. Senate

Roland W. Burris, 71, was elected as Illinois’ comptroller in 1978, making him the first African-American to win a statewide office in Illinois. The Democrat has worked for the political consulting firm Burris & Lebed Consulting LLC, and served as Illinois’ attorney general from 1991 to 1995. Blagojevich defeated Burris in the state’s 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary election.

Burris allegedly expressed his interest in the Senate seat soon after Barack Obama won the presidential election, but did not gain serious attention, the Chicago Tribune reports. “But in the days following Blagojevich’s arrest, and despite questions over the taint of a Senate appointment, Burris stepped up his efforts to win the governor’s support,” the Tribune writes.

Blagojevich’s move to name to a new senator comes as somewhat of a surprise; his criminal-defense lawyer, Ed Genson, said on Dec. 18 that the governor would not pick Obama’s successor, reported The Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, congressional confirmation for any replacement chosen by Blagojevich will not be easy. In Genson’s announcement less than three weeks ago he said, “[Senate majority leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.] said that they’re not going to accept anybody he picks. Why would he do that?”

Democratic Party leaders in the Senate reiterated that sentiment in a statement Tuesday: “Anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus.” Ill. Secretary of State Jesse White has also announced he will not certify the Burris appointment.

According to state campaign finance records, cited by the Chicago Tribune, Burris has donated over $20,000 to Blagojevich campaigns, both from his personal accounts as well as by way of his legal and consulting firms. Additionally, “Burris’ consulting company received about $290,000 in state contracts with the Illinois Department of Transportation a few years ago, according to state comptroller records,” writes the Tribune.

But politicians from both sides of the aisle attest to Burris’ clean bill of political health. Republican state Rep. Jim Durkin, for example, was quoted by the Tribune calling Burris “a good and decent man.” 

Durkin, who is the GOP speaker on the state panel charged with deciding whether Gov. Rod Blagojevich is to be impeached, also said that Burris would be well-advised not to accept the governor’s Senate appointment. “He left government under a good standing, and this is not a way to re-enter it. If he does accept it, I will take any means necessary to have him testify before the special (impeachment) committee.”

With Obama leaving his seat to assume the presidency, there are currently no black members of the Senate.

Background: Blagojevich’s arrest

Blagojevich had been under investigation for alleged “pay-to-play” politics for several months, coming to a head on Dec. 9, when he was detained by FBI agents at his Chicago home for charges related to his alleged attempts to sell Obama’s vacated Senate seat.

On Dec. 15, Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House and head of the state Democratic party, announced that he is having a committee of 12 Democratic and 9 Republican state House members research and issue findings to determine Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s fitness for office, possibly culminating in the governor’s impeachment.

Key Player: Roland Burris (1937-)

Roland W. Burris has a decades-long career in Illinois politics. Burris was the first African American to be elected to statewide office in Illinois, serving as state comptroller from 1978 through 1991. Previous to holding that office, Burris served from 1973 to 1977 as director of the Department of Central Management Services, a governor-appointed position. From January to October 1977, Burris was national executive director and chief operating officer of Jesse Jackson’s organization, Operation PUSH.

During his time as comptroller, Burris also served as vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1985 to 1989.

Burris was elected Illinois state Attorney General in 1991. Serving one term, through 1995, he was the second African American in the United State to be voted in as a state’s top legal advisor. 

He has had his eye on a U.S. Senate seat before: he ran unsuccessfully in the Illinois Democratic primary against Sen. Paul Simon in 1984. In 1995, Burris made an unsuccessful bid to unseat long-time incumbent Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is still in office.

He has made three unsuccessful attempts to run on the Democratic ticket for Illinois governor: once in 1994, again in 1998 as well as in 2002, when he had the endorsement of then-State Senator Barack Obama. Blagojevich won that Democratic nomination and the Illinois gubernatorial race.

“When Blagojevich beat me, I told Barack to get on board with him,” Burris said in an interview with The Washington Post quoted by MSNBC. “It was kind of like swallowing his pride a little bit, because he didn’t really see that they had anything in common.”

Previous to Burris’ career in public service, he worked in finance at Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company, which is now Bank of America. He has also worked as in attorney in private practice, most recently as a senior counsel at the Milwaukee-headquartered firm Gonzalez, Saggio and Harlan.

Born and raised in Centralia, a town of some 15,000 in outstate Illinois, Burris attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale as an undergraduate, then continued to Howard University Law School. He also studied international law at Germany’s University of Hamburg. He and his wife have an adult son and daughter, and one grandchild.

Opinion & Analysis: Who comes out clean in Blagojevich appointment?

Burris’ reputation of transparency in Illinois politics is not at question in Democrats’ flat-out rejection of Blagojevich’s appointment, but rather the latest rebuke of Blagojevich’s alleged pay-for-play politics. As Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune’s blog The Swamp points out, if Ill. Secretary of State White rejects the governor’s tap of Burris, “there really is no appointment.”

Yet some experts on election law, including former Federal Election Commision associate general counsel Ken Gross, believe that the Senate, at least, may not have the power as delineated under the Constitution to block any appointment made by Blagojevich. “There is very little that can be done to stop this, and I suspect it will go forward,” Gross told ABC News.

Other election lawyers, however, argue that there is no analogous legal precedent given the bribe allegations dogging Blagojevich. “The Senate has the power to judge whether an appointment may have been procured illegally somehow,” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh said in an ABC News report.

Should Burris accept the Senate nomination, the subsequently clear connection to Blagojevich could sully the former state attorney general’s clean image, as State Rep. Durkin alluded. However, just as the appointment could sully Burris’ reputation, it may serve to burnish Blagojevich’s political standing. In fact, some believe that’s precisely Blagojevich’s motivation.

“Please don’t let the allegations against me taint this good and honest man,” Blagojevich said at a Tuesday news conference announcing Burris’ nomination. Blagojevich called his appointee a “senior statesman” of “unquestioned integrity.”

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