MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I am Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the fighting in Gaza is producing strong reactions here in the U.S. We're going to talk with two radio hosts who are getting an earful from listeners on both sides of the issue. We'll find out what they're hearing in just a few minutes.
But first, to the political wars in Chicago. Yesterday, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich defied his critics in Illinois and in Washington and appointed former State Attorney General Roland Burris to fill the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. In doing so, Blagojevich brushed off the objections of critics who have demanded he call a special election or otherwise remove himself from the process because he was arrested for allegedly trying to auction the seat off for personal financial gain.
To learn more about the latest development in this amazing story, we turn once again to Mary Mitchell, columnist for the Chicago-Sun Times, and NPR political editor Ken Rudin. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much.
Ms. MARY MITCHELL (Columnist, Chicago-Sun Times): Thank you.
KEN RUDIN: Hi, Michel. You can't make this stuff up.
MARTIN: No you cannot. And, Mary, I have to ask. Were you - I know you've seen it all, but were you surprised by this?
Ms. MITCHELL: Well, you know, it sort of reminded me of a real fierce bid whist game, where there is this guy with a card on his forehead and, you know, by watching him, and Blagojevich has had that card - that winning card on his forehead for a couple of weeks now. All the sudden, he goes, bam, there it is. There is nothing you can do. Everyone was stunned.
MARTIN: I know that getting into anyone else's mind is always difficult, but what do you think he was thinking? What's was the - what's the point here?
Ms. MITCHELL: Well, you know, I do a radio show on Sundays, and what I realized is that he still has a lot of support in his base, and his strong base has been the black community. Lots of people think that he is somehow - there is some conspiracy out here to frame him, and that he's not done anything more than any other politician has done.
So he is trying to solidify that support. It's a PR campaign. If he walks around continuing to do the business that a governor does and acts as if nothing has happened, it gives an impression that, wait a minute. Maybe all of this stuff is not true, and maybe he didn't do what they said he did.
MARTIN: And it's worth mentioning that Roland Burris is African-American. Barack Obama was the only African-American serving in the Senate, so there is some pressure there to fill that seat with another African-American. Also, he was also the first African-American elected statewide in Illinois.
So there is that issue that, Ken, Senate majority leader Harry Reid wrote earlier this month that he would block any appointment made by Blagojevich - this statement was signed by all sitting Democratic senators, saying that they would reject such an appointment. What's Harry Reid saying now?
RUDIN: Well, he is saying the same thing. As a matter of fact, when rumors yesterday came around that Blagojevich was about to name somebody- we didn't know it was going to be Roland Burris, but we knew it would be somebody. They reiterated their opposition, and they said, you know, they point to article one section five of the Constitution, which says, each House shall be judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members. So they say that no matter whom Blagojevich appointed, himself, his wife, his, you know, anybody, the Senate would be in their constitutional rights to reject that nominee.
Now, of course, everybody points to the Adam Clayton Powell case in 1967 when the House refused to seat him because of financial irregularities. Adam Clayton Powell was a congressman from Harlem - long-time congressman who was barred from the House, and then the Supreme Court said no, as long as he fills the qualifications of a member of Congress, you can't bar him.
So, obviously, whatever is going to happen here is going to wind up in court, but it's the ultimate cynical and unbelievable - well, nothing is unbelievable anymore, but the ultimate cynical move by Blagojevich because he injects race into a story where actually race had not been involved.
MARTIN: Tell me how.
RUDIN: Well, because basically, he is daring the Senate to reject an African-American, Barack Obama being the only black member of the Senate - he resigned the seat when he became president-elect. And by naming Roland Burris, I mean, he had Bobby Rush, the congressman from Chicago, saying, look, whatever Blagojevich's crimes may or may not be - and, of course, he's been convicted of nothing - to lynch or to hang Roland Burris for Blagojevich's possible crimes is an injustice. And I think by injecting race in there, he is daring Democrats in the Senate to reject a black appointee to the Senate.
MARTIN: Mary Mitchell, how do you - how does that read you?
Ms. MITCHELL: It was a brilliant - it was a brilliant - offensive, but definitely a brilliant move on the part of Blagojevich because he is absolutely right. I mean, how can a Senate that has no African-American representation, no black voice in the Senate, how can they then stand - who is going to go on the floor and say and argue that Roland Burris, an upstanding politician from Chicago who has served in several capacities, how can they bar him from taking a seat? It's going to get ugly out there. And Washington is going to get a taste of Chicago politics that they never thought even could exist in this country.
MARTIN: Now, speaking of the person whose seat is an issue here, Barack Obama, he issued a statement very quickly after Blagojevich made his announcement saying, Roland Burris is a good man, and he is a fine public servant, but Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that - I am reading now - but Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot allow 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. Does that, Mary Mitchell, do you think his words have any weight?
Ms. MITCHELL: Well, I think it has a lot of weight, but not with Blagojevich. I mean, absolutely, Blagojevich does not care. But here is the other stench of this whole act on the part of Blagojevich. Now, you're going to have the situation where the first African-American president is going to - in a position of siding with the old - the Senate that has no African-American representation to bar a black person.
You're going to split the loyalties within the black community. Everyone is talking about this story. They're appalled, and everyone is waiting to see whether Barack Obama - President-elect Barack Obama is going to back down from his earlier position.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us here, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Mary Mitchell of the Chicago-Sun Times and NPR's Ken Rudin about the latest twist in the story of the Senate seat being vacated by Barack Obama and how that should be filled. Before we move forward, I want to play a clip from yesterday's press conference. Here's Roland Burris accepting the appointment. Here it is.
Mr. ROLAND BURRIS (Appointee to Vacated Illinois Senate Seat): I welcome the challenge that awaits us in the 111th Congress. I have faith in the record that I have forged over the past four decades, and I am proud of my accomplishments as public servant. I accept this appointment to fill the unexpired term of President-elect Barack Obama.
MARTIN: Well, in essence, he is saying, don't blame me because I have my own record. I am standing on my own record. Don't blame me for whatever taint may surround Rod Blagojevich. Ken Rudin, what about that?
RUDIN: Exactly. And that's exactly what Bobby Rush said at the press conference yesterday, that, you know, whatever you think about Blagojevich, the point is, Roland Burris is completely qualified. There is not the least bit taint of scandal involving him. He's been elected several times statewide. He was state comptroller for two or three terms. He was state attorney general.
Interestingly, he ran for governor three times, and he's well remembered for losing primaries. In 2002, matter of fact, last time he ran for governor, he lost to Blagojevich in the primary, and Burris was endorsed by some guy named Barack Obama. So it's all come full circle, and I think that, in his own very interesting way, Blagojevich is having a great time with this.
MARTIN: But, Mary, I have to ask and again, assessing other people's motivation is always difficult, but why do you think he would accept this appointment knowing that there is so much - there is a taint to it.
Ms. MITCHELL: It is tainted.
MARTIN: You know, of course, that the process has to go forward. The court process has to go forward a bit if the Senate - the assembly is considering impeachment. But why do you think he would accept it under these circumstances?
Ms. MITCHELL: Well, I think he accepted it because he has had desires for higher office. Like it was noted, he's run for the governor's office three times and loss. He was beaten down in a mayoral race, and he should have been embarrassed he lost so handily to Daley.
And he - now, he's 71 years old. Here's an opportunity for him to get something without even working for it. I mean, he doesn't have to go out and campaign anymore. He just gets to sit in the seat for two years.
He has a big ego. He thinks he's the greatest gift to the political arena. And so now, he's energized. He sat there - he stood beside Blagojevich yesterday with such a grin on his face you would have thought he was the joker in all of this. So it is very unfortunate that he is being used by Blagojevich and allowing himself to be used by Blagojevich.
MARTIN: One day you must tell us what you really feel, Mary. But - what about, though - but Ken Rudin, Rod Blagojevich makes the point that the Senate - that the assembly could have set a special election. They didn't, so the law requires him to make this appointment, and Roland Burris is qualified for the seat. Does he have a point?
RUDIN: Well, of course. I mean, constitutionally, as it stands right now in Illinois law, it's up to the governor, not the special election, not the general assembly, it's up to the governor to make the appointment. The point is, of course, as you've said and we've said and Mary said over and over again, that he's been accused of selling this seat, and here he is offering it to somebody who, you know, somebody - I mean, he has such question marks behind him.
It's interesting also, Danny Davis, African-American congressman from Chicago yesterday announced that - said that Blagojevich had offered him the seat earlier, and he would have loved to have taken it, as do so many Illinois Democrats would love the seat, but he turned it down because of, obviously, what would be involved and the taint that would be involved.
MARTIN: Ken, you mentioned that you think that this is going to wind up in court. Where, the United States Supreme Court?
RUDIN: It has to. I mean, it has to only because that the question is whether - I mean, is Roland Burris qualified? Absolutely. Does Rod Blagojevich have the power to name him? Absolutely. Does the Senate - does the Senate itself decide who is qualified to serve in them? Yes, according to article one section five of the Constitution.
So, do you have the two things clashing each other, and apparently, as with the Adam Clayton Powell case, it will be the courts that will have to define this, which makes this charade and circus last even longer.
MARTIN: And, Mary, final question to you, and we only have a minute left. Rahm Emanuel, who Barack Obama has selected as his chief of staff, is also about to resign his congressional seat, as he has to do to take his position in the White House. How does his seat get filled?
Ms. MITCHELL: Actually, there's a special election to fill his seat, and that will not be done by the governor. So, he'll - it will not have the same taint as this process has seen.
RUDIN: Yeah, absolutely. Constitutionally, you cannot make an appointment to fill a vacant House seat. You can with the Senate, but House seats, as Mary says, have to be filled by special election, so at least Blagojevich will not be involved in that one.
MARTIN: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. He joined us from Washington. Mary Mitchell is a columnist for the Chicago-Sun Times. She joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Happy New Year to you both.
Ms. MITCHELL: Happy New Year.
RUDIN: I can't predict what 2009 is going to look like.
MARTIN: And as you said, you cannot make this stuff up. Thank you.