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Ill. governor's Senate appointment may be shrewd

Thursday, January 1, 2009 , Posted by Linda at 10:32 AM

CHICAGO – Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's choice of a veteran black politician to fill President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat could be a shrewd move, potentially helping win over black lawmakers eyeballing his impeachment and perhaps even jurors in his corruption case. But is the appointment enough to save the embattled two-term Democrat in the face of nearly universal opposition?

Former Ill. Attorney General Roland Burris, right, takes questions after AP – Former Ill. Attorney General Roland Burris, right, takes questions after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich

"There's no empathy for him because he's done a good thing," said state Sen. Donne Trotter, a black Democrat from Chicago who would vote whether to convict Blagojevich if the Illinois House impeached him.

Blagojevich's surprising appointment of Roland Burris was officially rejected by Secretary of State Jesse White as expected Wednesday. Burris responded by filing paperwork asking the Illinois Supreme Court to force White to certify his appointment.

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, asked a judge for another three months to indict Blagojevich, saying they have "thousands" of intercepted phone calls and "multiple" people to assess. A 90-day extension would give prosecutors until April 7.

Burris said he planned to show up in Washington when new members are sworn in Tuesday and ask to be seated as the Senate's lone African-American. He said he would not cause a scene if he's turned away, as Democratic leaders have promised to do.

"That is not my style. I am not seeking to be confrontational," the former Illinois attorney general and comptroller said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"I'm not in any way seeking to play the race card in this situation," he said. "Under no circumstances."

But in a round of interviews on morning news shows and cable networks, Burris didn't exactly shy away from the race issue. He would not speculate on whether Blagojevich was currying favor with blacks by naming an African-American to replace Obama, and he didn't think the seat necessarily had to be filled by another black lawmaker.

"It is a fact, there are no African-Americans in the United States Senate," he said on NBC's "Today." "Is it racism that is taking place? That's a question that someone may raise."

In Washington, Senate Democratic officials spent New Year's Eve reviewing procedures that haven't been used in decades in anticipation of Burris' arrival on Tuesday. They also were searching for a way to defuse the dispute, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Generally, they expected to make a motion to refer Burris' credentials to the Rules Committee for a review, then to deny Burris floor privileges until the investigation is completed.

That could take months, by which time Blagojevich may no longer be governor, these officials said. Burris would not be granted a paycheck or office space in the meantime, the officials said.

On Wednesday, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus did not return calls seeking comment.

Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on charges that he tried to sell Obama's seat for money or a high-paying job and other allegations.

Long before his Dec. 9 arrest, Blagojevich had made a habit of courting the black community, both with broad policies and small gestures.

His closest ally in Springfield was Emil Jones, the powerful black leader of the Illinois Senate. The governor fought hard to improve education and health care, two issues at the top of the agenda for many black voters.

He also handed out grants to black institutions, such as the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church when it burned. And he publicly turned to black ministers during times of trouble and refused to dump a high-ranking Nation of Islam official from a state anti-discrimination panel.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, who is black, said Burris' appointment would not sway people's opinions of Blagojevich.

"We're just not cheap," Raoul said.

But Nidia Gaona, a University of Illinois senior and employee at a public library in Champaign, said Blagojevich was clearly trying to court blacks again with the Burris appointment.

"That's his main purpose — to appoint a black man to this seat to change people's minds about him," said Gaona, a Chicago native and registered Democrat. "It's just a shame to know that."

She doesn't think it will work, and believes Blagojevich — whom she didn't vote for in 2006 — should resign.

So does Crystal Pittman of the Chicago suburb of Matteson, although the 35-year-old telecommunications company employee predicted Blagojevich would pick up support because of the Burris pick.

"What is politics? You play your best hand, and I think Blagojevich is playing his best hand," Pittman said.

Still, Burris' appointment has gotten a cold reception. Politicians from Illinois to Washington say nobody appointed by the disgraced governor should be allowed to take the Senate seat.

Four days after Blagojevich was arrested, even Burris called the charges "appalling" and "reprehensible." He applauded an effort by the attorney general to have the courts remove Blagojevich, saying the governor could no longer do his job.

Burris said Wednesday that he stands by those statements. But he also said that Blagojevich can continue performing his duties, such as appointing a new senator, and he refused to take a position on whether the governor should resign.

Burris said friends — he would not identify them — are studying his legal options. He insisted that being named to the Senate by Blagojevich does not mean he is tainted by the governor's scandal.

"I am not associated with him. The governor made an appointment of me to be the senator," Burris said. "He's carrying out his constitutional and statutory duties. That is not being 'associated' with him."

A Chicago Tribune poll in October, before Blagojevich was arrested, showed his support among black voters slipping — from 70 percent to 32 percent. The impact of the appointment on blacks who might wind up sitting on a jury is probably nil, said Daniel Coyne, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Blagojevich's predecessor, former GOP Gov. George Ryan, cleared death row before he left office in 2003, but still ended up in prison after he was convicted in a federal corruption trial.

"Any time you start trying to do things in a way that you think would make a jury more favorable to you down the road, it really is nothing but speculation," Coyne said.

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