Political Hay

The Chicago 360

Democrats in Washington and Springfield alternate between embracing and shunning Roland Burris. How long can Illinois' junior senator hold on?

By 2.25.09

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Sen. Dick Durbin has told Roland Burris to resign from the U.S. Senate. Durbin thus completes a 360-degree migration around the question of Illinois' hapless junior senator's official viability.

Durbin began in December -- after the arrest of then-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, on charges including attempts to sell the U.S. Senate seat -- by saying "no one" appointed by Blagojevich would be seated. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid agreed. And then both Durbin and Reid changed their minds.

Blagojevich, in announcing Roland Burris, found a weak underbelly of Democratic politics to exploit. Congressman Bobby Rush appeared at the Burris announcement press conference. Rush and Burris engaged in a colloquy on race, to the effect that regardless of Blagojevich, Burris should be seated because without Barack Obama, there are no African Americans in the U.S. Senate. Blagojevich stood nearby.

Oddly, Burris said that but for exchanges with the governor's lawyer, his contact clock started when Blagojevich called to offer him the job. As Illinois' trail-blazing first black constitutional statewide official, and a former attorney general at that, Burris elicited support and relief from many Illinois Democrats who thought Blagojevich could have picked worse.

In a matter of weeks, they would repudiate their own judgment. Republicans groused that Roland was the fruit of the poisoned Blagojevich tree -- and that he should have been prevented by a special election.

Democrats supported a special election as well, from the day of the arrest. That support melted several days later when, in Springfield for a legislative veto session, they perceived voter anger -- and thus a potentially unwinnable special Senate election race.

With Minnesota's second senator still unnamed, the Illinois seat helps move the Democrats ever close to that 60th vote required to enact cloture. Longtime observers agree it is safe to presume that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel pointed this out to Springfield's Democrat leadership. So at the veto session the Democrats refused to block Blagojevich's appointment authority, leaving him the power to select as he would. And thus was born Burris, a notable Blagojevich legacy.

To overcome racial tensions within the Democratic Party exacerbated by Congressman Bobby Rush, Durbin and Reid collapsed. If Burris could straighten out his paperwork and testify to Illinois' House impeachment panel that he had not bought his Senate seat as part of Blagojevich's alleged "crime spree," then Burris would be welcome. Again, the hand of the White House was seen in instructions to Reid to end the matter before "Change We Can Believe In" was to get under way at the Presidential Inaugural. Quietly, Burris took the oath from Vice President Richard B. Cheney, in one of his final acts as Senate president.

By Valentine's Day the Chicago Sun-Times had learned that Burris had corrected his testimony to the House impeachment committee by submitting an affidavit with new information that significantly ratcheted up his contacts with the Blagojevich crew. Burris was unprepared to comment publicly -- but he did.

In what will be studied for years as a most bizarre example of political over-speaking, Burris sealed his fate -- as Illinois' first appointed Senator by a removed Governor to be urged to resign by his senior senator -- in a rambling series of press conferences, impromptu question-and-answer sessions, and a speech in which he declared he would no longer speak of the matter.

It is possible he did not talk himself out of the Senate seat; that the mere need to revise and extend his remarks with a new sworn affidavit was already enough. But his gabbing -- including notably the admission that he had been involved in fundraising efforts -- sped his slide down the razor's edge to political emasculation.

Virtually the whole of Illinois officialdom is now univocal in advising resignation. Yesterday, Durbin completed that tableau. The replacement for Rod Blagojevich, Pat Quinn, a Democrat, has even reverted to his original call on Gubernatorial Arrest Day for a special election. Illinois Republicans may soon have their shot to disprove reports of their demise.  

Burris, who has earned a pension for his state service and a modest income as a lobbyist, clings to his Senate post. But perhaps it will be pried from his hands. The state's attorney in Springfield has opened a perjury probe. The Senate ethics committee has a "pre-investigation" underway.

If Burris falls, there is little doubt that Rahm Emanuel is taking steps to keep Blagojevich's legacy as far from Barack Obama as possible.

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About the Author

Chris Robling is a former Chicago commissioner of elections.