The Swan Song of Roland

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, January 28, 2009)


Just a week after the presidential inauguration focused the nation’s attention on the best of Chicago politics, that attention shifted to the worst this week as the impeachment trial of Rod Blagojevich finally got underway.

It’s a case with an outcome basically assured, between the 114-1 impeachment vote, the ultra-incriminating (and unintentionally hilarious) wiretap tapes and the defendant choosing to take his case to the talk-show circuit rather than bother to attend his own trial. Blagojevich’s appearances on “The View” and “Larry King” have managed to keep the public talking about the governor’s bizarre conspiracy theories and the oddness of the appearances themselves instead of the real Blagojevich removal project being carried out in Springfield (and the airing of details therein).

So it’s only a matter of time until Rod’s out of office. Unfortunately, the legacy of his latest, career-ending scandal will still be around after the Elvis-quoting governor has left the building.

Just days before President Barack Obama took the oath of office, the Senate’s Democratic leadership caved in and agreed to seat the Blagojevich-appointed Roland Burris to fill Obama’s Senate seat for the next two years. Burris had already proven quite the distraction, so Obama and others called on the Senate to reverse its initial course and seat him.

“As we had outlined to Mr. Burris, a path needed to be followed that respects the rules of the Senate,” Harry Reid and Dick Durbin said in a joint statement announcing their acquiescence. “We committed to Mr. Burris that once those requirements were satisfied, we would be able to proceed. We are pleased that everything is now in order, we congratulate Senator-designee Burris on his appointment and we look forward to working with him in the 111th Congress.”

The Democratic leadership’s desire to get this issue settled before the inauguration was understandable. But it was also dangerously wrong, and the party leaders should ensure it’s only a short-term situation.

Burris, of course, received the Senate seat only after the governor got caught on tape discussing the sale of the “[expletive] valuable” appointment. Only after state officials told Blagojevich not to announce a choice until his own status was resolved. Only after Rep. Bobby Rush — a former Black Panther who has seen real racism in his life and should know better than to cry wolf — made national headlines by comparing the refusal to seat Burris to efforts to block desegregation. Only after Reid correctly announced that, “Anyone appointed by Governor Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois.”

It’s a decision Reid shouldn’t have even had to make. Under Illinois law, both the governor and secretary of state must sign off on an appointment, a provision created as a safeguard against situations exactly this one. To his credit, Secretary of State Jesse White consistently refused to endorse the Burris pick, grudgingly signing an alternative document acknowledging the appointment only after the Illinois Supreme Court ordered him to do so in an embarrassing ruling. “I could not and would not in good conscience sign my name to any appointment made by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill the Senate vacancy,” White told a local newspaper, clarifying his position. “This governor was arrested in part for trying to sell this very same Senate seat.” Once the state ruled out a special election to fill the seat, the job should have remained open until Blagojevich’s successor, Pat Quinn, got a chance to fill it.

In other words, a huge chunk of Illinois will always see Burris as an illegitimate senator. It’s incumbent upon Reid, Durbin, and others to dissuade Burris from seeking a full term. And, if he chooses to run anyway, to ignore his incumbency and work to elect a more viable and legitimate Democrat in the 2010 primary.

Limiting Burris to two years in office is good government and smart politics. It ensures that the people of Illinois will actually have a voice in who represents them in Washington and that a corrupt governor doesn’t get to keep the last word. Democratic leaders also have a vested interest here, in that a scandal such as this is about the only way the party can fail to hold the Senate seat. In the past two decades, the only Republican to win a Senate seat in Illinois — the hapless and generally disliked Peter Fitzgerald — barely did so only after a series of well-publicized controversies involving incumbent Carol Moseley Braun. In that case, the national party stood by its incumbent, but Moseley Braun was fairly chosen by the voters of her state. Burris was not, and is in no position to demand party loyalty.

As for Burris himself, his motivation here is pretty easy to understand. He has unsuccessfully sought the Senate seat before and, at 71, an appointment was his last, best shot at a job he’s always wanted. Save for his tendency to aggrandize his own accomplishments — his now nationally known mausoleum serving as a classic example — Burris should make a perfectly fine senator. Despite his recent string of electoral defeats, the man did win election to two statewide offices (comptroller and attorney general) from 1979 until 1995. As a junior senator at the very bottom of the seniority barrel — in a Senate where the Democrats already boast a healthy majority — Burris isn’t likely to have much impact on policy in the next two years.

He’s a mainstream Democrat with experience but, despite his qualifications, the way he got the seat makes him unworthy to hold it for the long term. The Senate shouldn’t have seated him in the first place, but that mistake was already made. It shouldn’t be compounded.

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