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Defiant Blagojevich Names Appointee for Senate Seat

December 30, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed former state Attorney General Roland Burris to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat Tuesday, prompting objections by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. Reporters mull the move.

RAY SUAREZ: Next, a surprise appointment in Illinois. Here’s more of that press conference with embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his pick to fill President-elect Obama’s Senate seat, Roland Burris.

They were also joined at the podium by Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush.

GOV. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), Illinois: The people of Illinois are entitled to have two United States senators represent them in Washington, D.C. As governor, I am required to make this appointment. If I don’t make this appointment, then the people of Illinois will be deprived of their appropriate voice and vote in the United States Senate.

Therefore, I am here to announce my intention to appoint an individual who has unquestioned integrity, extensive experience, and is a wise and distinguished senior statesman of Illinois. This man actually once was an opponent of mine for governor.

So I’m here today to announce that I am appointing Roland Burris as the next United States senator from Illinois.

ROLAND BURRIS, Senator-designate, Illinois: As the greatest nation in the history of the world, the United States is confronted with a crisis of faith in our own leadership capability and in our ability to bring understanding to nations who look to us for peace and prosperity.

And the people of our great nation have told us, in no uncertain terms, that we are at a crossroads of confidence in our ability to return the ideals that make the United States the greatest nation in the world.

Faced with these challenges and challenged with these crises, it is incomprehensible that the people of the great state of Illinois will enter the 111th Congress short-handed.

REP. BOBBY RUSH (D), Illinois: Let me remind you that the state of Illinois and the people in the state of Illinois in their collective wisdom have sent two African-Americans to the U.S. Senate.

We need to have not just one African-American in the U.S. Senate. We need to have many African-Americans in the U.S. Senate.

Blagojevich's power somewhat intact

GWEN IFILL: Gov. Blagojevich raised more questions than he answered at that surprise press conference, which managed to touch on the topics of criminality, the Constitution, political defiance, and race.

Here to sort through some of that are Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of The Hotline, National Journal's political daily, and NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of public TV's WTTW in Chicago.

Elizabeth, what was happening there in Chicago today? Why did Gov. Blagojevich, after having been told not to do it, make a Senate appointment?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: Well, because he thinks he can. I mean, he was making it clear that he was still the governor, despite all the calls for resignation, despite the impeachment hearings, despite the criminal charges against him. He is still the governor. And as you heard him say, it was his duty to appoint a U.S. senator, and so he went about doing just that.

GWEN IFILL: He said he was required to appoint a U.S. senator. And the secretary of state in Illinois today said he's required to certify that appointment. I don't know if that's so, but where does that leave things tonight?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, that could be an impediment to disappointment, but the secretary of state does have to certify it, but that basically is sort of a clerk's duty. So whether or not that would -- the Blagojevich administration could litigate that, saying that it was just a, you know, a minor functionary's job to do that and still go ahead.

I mean, right now, attorneys we talked to this afternoon have said that it looks like Gov. Blagojevich has the power to do this and there is nothing to stop him from it.


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: I mean, what really -- go ahead, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I was just going to say, all the legalisms aside, who is Roland Burris, for people who aren't familiar with him?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Roland Burris is an important politician in Illinois. He was the first African-American to hold statewide office when he was elected as state comptroller in 1983. And then, from 1991 to 1995, he was the Illinois attorney general.

So he's a well-respected politician. He's a downstate politician. And he's had, you know, a good strong following here in Illinois. I mean, Gov. Blagojevich was right when he said there hasn't been, you know, a hint of scandal attached to Roland Burris.

Democrats reject the choice

GWEN IFILL: Amy, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has said and repeated again today that he has no intentions of seating anybody who Rod Blagojevich sends to Washington. So where does that leave his ability, Roland Burris' chances of actually being senator?

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Well, it goes back to this point about, how much will this be a litigated issue, right, that we're going to see the back-and-forth continue, between the Senate saying we have the option of seating someone or not and we're choosing not to seat him.

I'm very curious to see how quickly the legislature moves through this impeachment process. Lieutenant Gov. Quinn had stated this past weekend that he thought this was going to be over by Lincoln's birthday. It's February. Will there be a lieutenant governor who then makes an appointment and then the Senate decides, "Well, we're going to sit this person, with Roland Burris still sitting out there"?

It's very unclear, but it's very messy, and definitely not what Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership want to be dealing with when they know that the president-elect has said we want to hit the ground running on January 20th on the stimulus, et cetera, et cetera.

GWEN IFILL: And including the current -- the remaining senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, and the exiting senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, both of whom said Roland Burris -- what did they say today?

AMY WALTER: Right, I mean, they both weighed in and sent out very similar responses, which was Roland Burris is a very wonderful man and an accomplished man, but we have said all along that Rod Blagojevich should not make this pick and that he should resign.

And the question now becomes, how political does this end up being? The Republicans in the state of Illinois trying to make both the Burris, as well as Blagojevich, and Democrats accountable, saying that Burris is indeed somewhat tainted, he's part of the old-boy system, and that he's donated money to the governor.

Race injected into appointment

GWEN IFILL: But here in Washington, do the senators in Washington -- do they really have the right not to seat him if they choose not to?

AMY WALTER: Well, I mean, this is where it becomes difficult, because we know we've had instances in which Congress has denied seating someone into that body because of a discrepancy in elections.

We saw this back in the so-called "Bloody Eighth" election in Indiana in 1984, where the Democrats in Congress refused to seat a Republican who was certified by the Indiana secretary of state. We saw this in 1974 in the Senate race in New Hampshire where there were two different answers to who had won that election. There were actually two different counts.

So there's a precedent for that. We don't know what the precedent is for an appointed senator.

GWEN IFILL: Elizabeth, so we saw Bobby Rush at that news conference today, a former Black Panther, Roland Burris, 71-year-old elected official there, former elected official, not exactly the new generation, but the most interesting thing about Bobby Rush is that he inserted race. They both -- both he and the governor used the term "lynching" to describe the situation the governor finds himself in. Why is that significant in Illinois politics?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, I have to say, Gwen, he really electrified the press conference, despite the fact that, you know, he's been very ill. He's had cancer. He speaks very slowly. But he's a minister, and he carries a lot of weight here.

And he simply said that Roland Burris is one of the most qualified people from the state of Illinois, more qualified than many other senators across the country. And he said, "Now, who will go on record to deny the appointment of the only African-American to the U.S. Senate?"

You know, of course, Barack Obama was the only African-American. And now that he's president-elect, Bobby Rush said, "I've been praying that the governor would make an appointment of an African-American to carry on the legacy of Barack Obama." And now that he's done that, he issued a solid challenge to his fellow legislators to back this appointment.

Obama against appointment

GWEN IFILL: Barack Obama, who we've not heard speak on something, for instance, like the crisis in Gaza, did put out a statement this afternoon, Amy, saying that he would be one of those who would stand against this appointment.

AMY WALTER: That's right. And it does put him in a very awkward position, obviously, because it is his Senate seat.

GWEN IFILL: Does he have history -- does he have history with Roland Burris?

AMY WALTER: Well, actually, when he was a state senator, he endorsed Burris' run for governor. Burris has actually run four times for governor. And the last time, as Blagojevich pointed out in that press conference, he came in third place in a three-way primary in 2002...

GWEN IFILL: Against Blagojevich.

AMY WALTER: ... against Blagojevich and one other person. So there's something of a history there, but not anything that you would see as long-serving.

But, you know, the question in terms of, you know, coming to the point of the -- the race issue, which is, does this then set up whether it's Lieutenant Gov. Quinn who makes an appointment or whoever else may end up getting the seat where that comes into play?

I mean, I think we had assumed sort of all along, before Blagojevich was arrested, my assumption all along in this process was there's no way Blagojevich can put somebody in the seat -- again, the only African-American in the Senate -- who's a white male, that there was going to have to be somebody different. Does then this push up other potential candidates?

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter, Elizabeth Brackett in Chicago, thank you both very much.