Roland W. Burris, Burris Blagojevich, Blagojevich picks Burris as senator
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Roland Burris

Burris Approved to Fill Obama’s Senate Seat

January 12, 2009 05:17 PM
by Anne Szustek
Former Ill. Attorney General Roland W. Burris, the Senate appointee of embattled Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, has been greenlighted by Senate lawyers to assume the seat Obama vacated.

Burris Approved for Senate Seat, Due to Be Seated This Week

Roland Burris, the senator-designate to assume the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, has had his credentials approved by Senate legal officials and, given that there are no objections from Senate Republicans, should be “sworn in and formally seated later this week,” Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a joint statement.

Burris was appointed to the Senate by Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached on Jan. 9 on corruption charges related to an alleged attempt to sell Obama’s Senate seat. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White refused to sign off on the appointment, however, and the Senate initially refused to seat Burris.

During a private meeting last Wednesday with Reid and Durbin, Burris was told he would need to testify in front of a panel of Illinois state House of Representative members determining whether the governor should be impeached. Burris testified, maintaining his innocence. White still refused to sign off on the appointment, a decision upheld by the Illinois state Supreme Court.

Originally Reid and Durbin, invoking a rule that dates from 1884, said that Burris could not be seated until he obtained the signature from White. Ill. Supreme Court members suggested to Senate Democrats that alternative documents could be submitted on Burris’ behalf.

“To wait until Gov. Blagojevich is removed could be a matter of weeks,” Durbin said on CBS news program Face the Nation. “I think Roland Burris’ future and fate will be decided before then.”

Background: Blagojevich’s arrest; controversy over Burris appointment

Gov. Blagojevich appointed Burris Dec. 30 to take up the Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama days after Blagojevich was arrested on federal charges in connection with allegedly trying to sell the congressional position. Amid the ensuing controversy, however, both Illinois and national officials were refusing to accept Burris’ nomination because they do not believe Blagojevich should have the power to nominate anyone for the position.

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 Jan. 9, the Illinois state House of Representatives voted nearly unanimously to impeach Blagojevich. A tribunal composed of the state Senate that is to rule on the governor’s ouster is yet to take place.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 5, a day before the 2009 congressional session got underway, Burris left Chicago for Washington to get situated to serve as the new junior senator from Illinois. But Ill. Secretary of State Jesse White’s refusal to certify the appointment resulted in Burris’ rejection by the Secretary of the Senate’s office.

According to Beth Provenzano, a spokesperson for Nancy Erickson, the Secretary of the Senate, Blagojevich had signed the certificate necessary to make Burris’ appointment official.

Burris remained resolute in his right to the seat, saying Jan. 5, “I’m a United States senator” at a news conference held at Chicago-Midway Airport. Yet if Burris had not encountered this hurdle, there would have been others from within his own party.

“Several officials said it was out of the question that Burris would be sworn into office on Jan. 6 when other new lawmakers take the oath of office,” wrote the Associated Press. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he plans to have a private meeting Wednesday with Burris.

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 as a candidate, 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 came 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 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 Dec. 30 statement: “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 more than $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 that recommended Blagojevich's impeachment, 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.”

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 Dec. 30 news conference announcing Burris’ nomination. Blagojevich called his appointee a “senior statesman” of “unquestioned integrity.”

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