Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn urged Sen. Roland Burris to resign Friday and called for a special election to replace him. While many African-Americans in Illinois have backed Burris, there are signs that some are rethinking their support.
There are two things at play in the controversy over the Illinois Senate seat: race and integrity. And Quinn's call for Burris to resign is sure to stir concern among many African-Americans.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington, who often writes about politics, says many worry that if Burris resigns, his successor would not be African-American.
"I think there are many people who believe that this is all part of an attempt to make sure that the seat does not remain in black hands," she said. "Get Roland Burris out of the way, and then someone white will take it over."
Since the 20th century, there have been four African-American U.S. senators. Three have been from Illinois: Carol Moseley Braun, Barack Obama and Burris, who is now the sole black senator. One of his staunchest supporters has been Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther and longtime congressman from Chicago's South Side.
"We need to have not just one African-American in the U.S. Senate," Rush said after Burris' appointment at the end of December. "We need to have many African-Americans in the U.S. Senate."
Rush was the first to publicly call attention to the Senate's lack of diversity after Burris was appointed. Senate leaders initially blocked the seating of Burris because he was appointed by the state's former governor, Rod Blagojevich, who is accused of trying to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Hundreds of African-American ministers, activists and others gathered at a church rally last month to support seating Burris.
He has offered different versions of how he received his appointment. On Friday, a large group of black ministers was to meet to consider what level of support they will offer Burris as the calls for him to resign mount.
Even Rush is now a bit more cautious in his support.
"As a citizen, as a member of Congress, as a person who believes in Roland Burris, I do have some concerns," Rush said. "But I don't know. I don't know his side of the story."
On Thursday, hundreds of people showed up for the annual meeting of the Chicago Urban League. Attendee Barton Taylor said he is withholding judgment on Burris until the Senate Ethics Committee and a county prosecutor finish their investigations. But Taylor doesn't believe the Senate seat must be held by an African-American.
"I think the best person should be the senator," Taylor said. "And I think one of the things we need to learn from this whole election cycle, particularly from the presidential election, is that race shouldn't be a determining factor for qualification."
Political consultant Delmarie Cobb, who ran two of Burris' unsuccessful campaigns for Illinois governor, said the furor over Burris now is all about Republicans and Democratic leaders who just want to control the Senate seat. And race is a factor, Cobb said.
"There is the perception that Roland is black — he's defeatable," she said. "We have to understand that that's where a lot of this firestorm is coming from — because of the politics of this; not necessarily because of Roland Burris' integrity."
Meantime, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says Burris should take the time this weekend to come up with a satisfactory explanation about the discrepancies in his statements.