MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Illinois Democratic Governor Pat Quinn is now calling for a special election to replace Senator Roland Burris.
PAT QUINN: To step away and resign is, I think, a heroic act, and I ask Roland to do that.
NORRIS: Some Burris backers are rethinking their support, but as often is the case, in politics, race is a complicating factor.
NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY: There are two things at play in this controversy over the Illinois Senate seat: race and integrity. And Governor Quinn's call for Roland Burris to resign is sure to stir fear 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.
LAURA WASHINGTON: I think there are many people that believe that this is all part of an attempt to make sure that the seat does not remain in black hands. Get Roland Burris out of the way and then someone white will take it over.
CORLEY: Since the 20th century, there have been four African-American U.S. senators, three from Illinois: Carol Moseley-Braun, Barack Obama and Roland Burris, now the sole black senator. One of his staunchest supporters has been Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush.
BOBBY RUSH: 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.
CORLEY: Rush was the first to publicly raise the Senate's lack of diversity after Roland Burris was appointed. Senate leaders initially blocked seating Burris because he was appointed by the state's former governor, Rod Blagojevich, who's 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERMON)
NORRIS: Come on, let's receive our senator from Illinois, the United States of America, Mr. Roland Burris.
ROLAND BURRIS: I am ready to serve, friends. I am ready to serve.
CORLEY: Senator Burris offered different versions of events leading up to his appointment. Today, 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 Congressman Rush is a bit more cautious in his support.
RUSH: You know, as a senator and as a member of congress, as a person who believes in Roland Burris, I do have some concerns, but I don't know. I don't know his side of the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR)
Unidentified People: (Singing) There's things uprising (unintelligible) up on today's (unintelligible).
CORLEY: Hundreds showed up yesterday for the annual meeting of the Chicago Urban League. Barton Taylor says he's withholding judgment on Roland Burris until a 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.
BARTON TAYLOR: I think the best person should be the senator. 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.
CORLEY: Political consultant Delmarie Cobb, who ran two of Burris' unsuccessful campaigns for Illinois governor, says this furor over Burris now is all about Republicans and Democratic leaders who just want to control the Senate seat. And race, says Cobb, is a factor.
DELMARIE COBB: You know, there is the perception that because Roland is black, he's defeatable. And so, we have to understand that that's where a lot of this firestorm is coming from - is because of the politics of this, not necessarily because of Roland Burris' integrity.
CORLEY: Meantime, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Senator Burris should take the time this weekend to come up with a satisfactory explanation about the discrepancies in his statements.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.