Defiant Blagojevich names Obama's Senate replacement

Irate, political leaders rush to block move

Roland W. Burris, a former state attorney general, was the first African-American elected to major statewide office in Illinois. Roland W. Burris, a former state attorney general, was the first African-American elected to major statewide office in Illinois.
By Monica Davey
New York Times / December 31, 2008
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CHICAGO - Defying Senate leaders in Washington and a galaxy of political leaders here, Governor Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois announced yesterday that he would fill the Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama, the seat he has been accused of trying to sell.

Blagojevich said he would appoint Roland W. Burris, a former state attorney general who was the first black to win statewide office in Illinois. The decision set off a scramble of efforts to block the move by state legislators, the secretary of state, and, most significant, Democratic leaders in the US Senate who said they will not seat anyone Blagojevich chooses.

Still, even as the selection was clearly destined for immediate battles on many fronts, Blagojevich sounded breezily confident as he introduced his appointee to reporters as the "next United States senator from Illinois."

Having been charged earlier this month with conspiracy to commit fraud and bribery, Blagojevich said the accusations against him should not taint Burris, whom he called "a good and honest man."

Standing beside him, Burris - who, at 71, is seen by many in Illinois as an elder statesman in Democratic politics - seemed to brush aside gaping questions about how federal criminal charges against Blagojevich might tarnish his potential Senate tenure and whether he would really ever make it to the Senate chamber in the first place.

"I'm honored that I have been appointed," Burris said, "and we will deal with the next step in the process."

Of the criminal case against Blagojevich, Burris said, "I have no relationship with that situation."

Obama, who was vacationing in Hawaii and who, aides said, was surprised by the news of Burris's appointment, issued a statement condemning the decision.

"Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat," Obama said.

"I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it."

The Senate Democratic caucus, which controls the chamber, issued a statement saying that no one appointed by the governor could be an effective representative and that Burris would therefore not be seated. It is not clear, however, whether the caucus can bar a qualified appointee, and the issue may be headed to court.

The choice of Burris immediately injected the issue of race into the appointment process, which may very well have been part of the governor's calculation.

Representative Bobby L. Rush, Democrat of Illinois, who was called to the lectern at the news conference by Burris, said he did not believe any senator "wants to go on record to deny one African-American from being seated in the US Senate."

Blagojevich, a two-term Democrat, is accused in a web of corruption that prosecutors say included efforts to get a high-paying job, Cabinet post, or money in exchange for Obama's Senate seat. Since the day of his arrest, state and national Democrats have urged him not to attempt to appoint a new senator, and Blagojevich's own lawyer had said he would not.

Blagojevich said yesterday that he was compelled to do so by state law.

"To not fill the vacancy would be to deprive the people of Illinois of two United States senators, to deprive the people of Illinois of their appropriate voice and votes in the United States Senate," Blagojevich said.

Around the state, elected officials, many of them exasperated after three weeks of topsy-turvy political drama, responded with fury.

"This provocative action is an insult to the people of Illinois," said Pat Quinn, the lieutenant governor and a fellow Democrat, who added that the governor had defied the desires of an entire state.

Lisa Madigan, the attorney general, who is also a Democrat, said the governor was putting Illinois in a "terrible" situation with his appointment, and state legislators agreed.

"This process is so tainted it stinks beyond belief," said Jim Durkin, a Republican state representative who sits on a committee that is conducting an impeachment inquiry into the governor. Durkin said he now intends to request that Burris be summoned before the committee to discuss how the Senate appointment came about.

"Mr. Burris left Illinois government with a good reputation, which will be significantly tarnished if he accepts this appointment," Durkin said.

Roland W. Burris, a former state attorney general, was the first African-American elected to major statewide office in Illinois.

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