2008 Politics Goes Out With a Bang!
By Al Giordano
So much for the famously slow news days between xmas and the New Year. Politics in 2008 is going out with a bang, not a whimper.
The political world is swirling today with reports from Chicago that scandal-ridden Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich will call a 2 p.m. CT press conference to appoint former state attorney general Roland Burris, 71, to the US Senate seat vacated by President-Elect Barack Obama.
You may not know Burris, but Illinois does. According to NBC Chicago:
Former bank examiner for the Comptroller of the Currency. Continental Illinois National Bank, where he rose from tax accountant to vice president. Director of the Illinois Department of General Services in 1973. Took over as national executive director and chief operating officer for Operation PUSH in 1977. Elected comptroller in 1978, becoming the first black elected to statewide constitutional office in Illinois. Re-elected in 1982 and 1986. Elected attorney general in 1990...
During an unsuccessful bid to become Illinois governor, Burris sold himself as an experienced businessman ready to take over the Illinois "corporation." He touted his 12 years as comptroller and four as Illinois attorney general as appropriate training for the top spot. Burris pledged to devote 51 percent of all new revenue to school funding; to cut back on state spending; to create a "rainy day" fund to provide for state fiscal crises; to continue building an airport at Peotone; and to promote high-speed rail. He supported limiting campaign contributions but only if they're accompanied by spending limits.
He supports abortion rights and a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation. He wants to increase early childhood education.
In other circumstances, Burris would be a very good pick and probably an excellent senator. DKos blogger Bob Johnson makes the case for Burris, here. But he's got a rough ride ahead of him, as Blagojevich's own defense attorney noted last week when speculating that his client, the embattled governor, would not likely appoint to fill the senate vacancy, reports Amy Walter of the National Journal's Political Hotline:
At a 12/17 presser Genson's response to the question of whether Blagojevich would appoint a successor, was "No. ... [Senate Maj. Leader] Harry Reid said that they're not going to accept anybody he picks. Why would he do that?" And, in 12/18 interview with MSNBC's Tamron Hall, he said that "My understanding is he's not going to appoint anyone to the seat"
This appointment will put serious pressure on Democrats in the Senate who have said that they would not seat any appointment made by the embattled Governor. At the same time, they would also like to come into the first weeks of the new session with as many Democratic lawmakers possible.
As Field Hand J.P. Massar notes, it's not crystal clear that the US Senate has the legal standing to reject the appointment, based on case law dating back to US Rep. Adam Clayton Powell from New York (although, once sworn in, the Senate can expel any senator by a two-thirds vote, which is to say about 41 Republicans plus about 26 Democrats).
I can see both sides of this: On the one hand, Burris, 71, tarnishes his apparently spotless and honorable political career if he accepts the taint of Blago's nomination. On the other hand, he's 71: what has he personally got to lose? The gamble that circumstances might end him up as a US Senator might have the odds against him, but they're not insurmountable odds.
The real problem is for Obama, the Democratic Party and particularly the Democrats in the US Senate, and how Republicans will surely use any successful seating of Burris to portray the entire party "brand" as akin to the Illinois governor's alleged corruption. Blagojevich has thus tossed the hot potato into the laps of others (buying for himself a little bit of breathing room) now that the epicenter of the Illinois government scandal will shift from Chicago to Washington with all eyes on how the Senate responds.
There is also the delicate question of race. Obama's resignation last month from the Senate left the upper house without a sole African-American senator. This could get complicated as a political matter with some (or all?) other senators seeking to deny him the post, a possible court battle over that, and Blagovich - perhaps playing to the demographics of a future Chicago jury? - trying to position himself as an advocate for a possible senator whose only taint is Blagojevich himself.
It's so complicated - nobody can say with authority that Burris won't become senator or that he will become senator - and although my instincts are that this is going to end badly for Burris and others, I can't offer an immediate prediction as to how I think this will turn out. If and when I can, you'll be the first to know.
Never a dull moment 'round here. Happy New Year, Field Hands!
Update: Here we go. Illinois state Senate President Emil Jones calls Burris "a great choice."
Update II: The plot thickens. Burris is a registered lobbyist. Also, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White is saying he won't certify Burris as senator, which means he might not even get as far as Washington. The odds just got much steeper for Burris, because the entire gambit is based on shifting the action to DC. Color me leaning more toward projecting that there won't be any Senator Burris.
Update III: Nate Silver weighs in from Chicago, also with nuance:
The Capitol Fax Blog has a couple of additional details. Firstly, they're reporting that Illinois' Secretary of State Jesse White will refuse to certify the appointment. I'm not sure what, if any, constitutional authority White has to do that.
Secondly, although Burris has criticized Blagojevich in recent weeks, he's also contributed $11K to his campaign fund, and his consulting firm has done a lot of business with the state during Blago's term. Neither of those things are damning in and of themselves, of course, but they give the Republicans some ammunition.
One of Reid's problems, by the way, is that it seems plausible that some Republicans would vote against expulsion, perhaps by suggesting that to expel Burris would be an abuse of their Constitutional authority. Their real motivation, of course, might be to give the Blagojevich story legs heading into 2010.
This is going to be ... awkward. As we explained before, it's not at all clear that the Senate has the constitutional authority to refuse to seat an appointed senator. Instead, they might have to seat Burris and then immediately expel him. And I'm not sure that expulsion, which requires a two-thirds majority, is any kind of slam dunk. Burris has a reputation for being above-board, was the first African-American ever to be elected (to statewide office) in Illinois, and actually ran against Blagojevich in 2002. He also has the advantage of not actually having held office in Illinois since 1995, which may explain why he's clean. So the third surprise here is that Blago made a fairly astute choice. If he wanted to pick someone who maximized his chances of having the appointment succeed, Burris would be close to the top of that list.
Update IV: Oh. My. God. US Rep. Bobby Rush just interrupted the Burris appointment press conference to endorse the appointment, citing that Illinois has had two African-American US senators in recent years. "We need to have not just one African-American in the US Senate. We need to have many African-Americans in the US Senate... I ask you not to hang or lynch the appointee as you castigate the appointer... Separate the appointee from the appointer...." Boom! That's a game changer. What a year!
Update V: Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn just held a live press conference saying that Blagojevich is "not fit" to make an appointment to the US Senate and cheering Secretary of State Jesse White's announcement that he won't certify the Burris appointment. For sheer entertainment value and adrenaline rush, this is like a championship sporting event!
Update VI: Speaking of 2008 going out with a bang... Many have worried aloud in the comments section that we might not get to our $10,000 year-end fundraising goal by the end of the year. But look! With 38 hours to go the donations have begun coming in a bit faster and we're now just $1,034.47 from our goal. That means we just have to raise $27 an hour to meet it on time. We've done that before, because you've always come through. You can see that on the bar graph in the the upper right corner of your screen that Latin America and the United States (sans Alaska) is now blue and we're close to sweeping the continent. Please make this New Year's as celebratory as we want it to be by donating to The Fund for Authentic Journalism today. (And thanks, everyone, who has given so far.) Looks like an exciting and informative year ahead, too!
Update VII: A statement, hot off the presses, from President-elect Obama:
"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. I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it. I believe the best resolution would be for the Governor to resign his office and allow a lawful and appropriate process of succession to take place. While Governor Blagojevich is entitled to his day in court, the people of Illinois are entitled to a functioning government and major decisions free of taint and controversy," said President-elect Obama.