Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich may not have the most finely developed code of ethics, but his sense of the dramatic is impeccable. Clinging desperately to his hold on power, which has been tenuous since his arrest on federal corruption charges on Dec. 9, Blagojevich has not merely tried to fill the vacant Senate seat he stands accused of trying to sell to the highest bidder. He has begun a showdown with his own Democratic Party that threatens to divide it along the dangerous fault line of race.
The stage was set when Blagojevich announced that he had chosen Roland Burris to replace Barack Obama as the state's junior senator. Burris, a former state comptroller and attorney general, was the first black elected to statewide office in Illinois. Obama was the Senate's only black member; Burris's appointment would ensure that the seat continued to be held by an African-American, as it has been for nearly ten of the last sixteen years.
To make sure that this symbolism was not lost on anyone watching, Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther, also attended the Blagojevich-Burris press conference. He not too subtly warned his colleagues "not to hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer."
On Sunday, Rush held a rousing sendoff for Burris with dozens of black leaders and ministers at the New Covenant Church on Chicago's South Side. Rush blasted the Senate as "the last bastion of plantation politics," saying blacks had been "excluded systematically for too long." Bishop Simon Gordon concurred, "The U.S. Senate must reflect all of America."
According to the Associated Press, "Burris took the stage to a crescendo of drums, organ music and applause as hundreds of supporters cheered his appointment." At the pulpit Burris said, "We are hoping and praying that they will not be able to deny what the Lord has ordained."
If the Lord has ordained a racially tinged political conflict with the potential to overshadow the new Congress's opening, He won't be denied. Burris landed in the Washington area on Monday as he prepared for a confrontation with the Senate's Democratic leadership over whether he should be seated. "This is all politics and theater," the New York Times quoted him as saying, "but I am the junior senator according to every law book in the nation."
But not the Senate's rulebook, which requires a valid certificate of appointment. As of late Monday night, Senate officials were insisting that his paperwork did not meet this standard. A spokeswoman for the secretary of the Senate told reporters, "We received [the paperwork] this morning… the parliamentarian reviewed it, and we've advised Mr. Burris' staff that it does not conform with Senate Rule 2."
Under Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution, each house of Congress serves as "the Judge of the Elections, Returns, and Qualifications of its own members." But that power is not limitless: the Supreme Court ruled against the House when it refused to seat corrupted Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Powell had won a fair election while the Senate leadership argues that Blagojevich's appointment process itself was irredeemably tainted by the federal corruption charges.
Except that no one is alleging that anything is tainted about the specific appointment of Roland Burris. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid himself said on NBC, "I don’t know a thing wrong with Mr. Burris." The Illinois secretary of state, Jesse White, has given them an out by refusing to cosign the certificate of appointment with Governor Blagojevich.
Whether the Senate leadership is technically correct that it can refuse to seat Burris -- Akhil Reed Amar and Josh Chafetz make a good case for the yes position, Stephen Chapman for no -- the Democrats face a political dilemma that results from their party's predilection for identity politics and bean-counting. Blagojevich is using a weapon members of his party have long brandished against Republicans.
Blagojevich's office has told the press that the Senate majority leader advised against picking either Illinois Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. or Danny Davis, who are black, in favor of Lisa Madigan, who is white and the daughter of the Illinois house speaker, and Tammy Duckworth, who is an Asian-American. "I think the governor thinks that it shows that Harry Reid may have a horse in this race, and it’s not Roland Burris," Blagojevich's spokesman said of the conversations. And not until the night before the new senators were to be sworn in did Senate Democrats ever suggest they might delay seating Al Franken if a Norm Coleman challenge kept him from receiving a valid certificate of election.
Of course, such playing of the race card is unfair. A Senate Democratic leader has every right to lobby for the Democrat he thinks is best positioned to win an election, regardless of race. The Illinois secretary of state refusing to go along with Blagojevich's Senate appointment is black. But liberal Democrats have long played these kinds of identity politics games, including Burris himself, who once referred to gubernatorial primary opponents as "nonqualified white boys."
Pat Buchanan recently argued that Blagojevich and Burris are merely challenging white liberal Democrats to practice what they preach by forgoing Senate seats themselves to build a Congress that looks like America. "That would be liberals leading by example, not exhortation," he wrote. How they handle the Blago-Burris bombshell will also be an example of what kind of liberal leadership we can expect.
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