NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Roland Burris is expected here in Washington later today on a collision course with Senate Democrats. Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich named Burris to fill the Senate seat left by President-elect Barack Obama, but only after a federal prosecutor accused him of trying to auction that appointment to the highest bidder. Before boarding a plane for the Capitol, Burris spoke to reporters in Chicago about an hour ago. The Q&A session at times turned testy. Here he was asked about distancing himself from Governor Blagojevich.
Mr. ROLAND BURRIS (U.S. Senate Appointee): Why should I separate myself from Governor Blagojevich? And then? Do you separate the people when they elect you? No, I mean, I don't have to separate myself from Rod Blagojevich. He carried out his duties, and he filled the vacancy as according to law, isn't that correct? Isn't that what the statute says, that the governor shall appoint a person to fill the vacancy? It didn't say anything about being tainted or being associated with or being, you know, stick - I mean, this is all politics and theater. But I am the junior senator according to every lawbook in the nation.
CONAN: Roland Burris on his way to Washington and apparently a meeting with the leader of the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada. Senate Democrats say they will not seat anyone Blagojevich named, and Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush agreed with that until the governor appointed Burris, an African-American. Congressman Rush then said blocking the appointment would be comparable to segregationist governors who blocked school integration during the 1960s.
Well, we have two perspectives on this. In his column over the weekend, Clarence Page argued that the governor and the congressman are playing to white guilt and that Roland Burris is getting played. On her blog, Sophia Nelson argued that the rule of law calls upon the Senate to seat Roland Burris not because he is black, but because he is qualified for the position and because he was legally appointed. Clarence Page's column is syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. He joins us today here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program, Clarence, and a...
Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Always a pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: And happy new year.
Mr. PAGE: You too.
CONAN: Sophia Nelson is a lawyer and editor of politicalintersectionblog.com. She joins us today from the Studio at WETA, a member station in Arlington, Virginia. Happy birthday, Sophia.
Ms. SOPHIA NELSON (Blogger, Politicalintersectionblog.com): Hey, Neal. Thank you, and hey, Clarence, it's good to be on with you.
Mr. PAGE: Great to be on with you, too.
CONAN: Well, Clarence, let's begin with you. You started your piece by quoting President-elect Obama as writing that white guilt has exhausted itself.
Mr. PAGE: I suspect that it has in this process because the odd thing here is that Bobby Rush, as you mentioned, is making the argument that we need to have a black senator. The reason why this seat is vacant is because the black senator that Illinois had has moved up to the White House. That's not exactly comparable to the Jim Crow South, which is the analogy he went on to make. I think it just gets a little bit over the top.
CONAN: A little over the top. Sophia Nelson, your argument as I read it is that, look, Governor Blagojevich, he's still the governor. He hasn't been convicted of anything. He followed the law.
Ms. NELSON: Two points. Yes, that's correct. You read it correctly, but I agree with what Clarence is saying and from the standpoint that I think Bobby Rush went way over the top. I don't think this has to do with race whatsoever, and I said that in my blog. I do think it has everything to do with whether or not we follow the rule of law, the state constitution of Illinois, et cetera.
And right now, as a lawyer and someone who loves the constitution and state laws, et cetera et cetera, I'm troubled by the fact that the Democrats in Congress are saying we're not going to seat this man who has been properly appointed and legally appointed. Whether we like who appointed him is another issue. But it's politics, and what they're saying is, we don't like that he is tainted.
Well, until he is indicted or convicted and removed from office, he is still the governor of Illinois, and the secretary of state, as far as I'm concerned, should be fired because he is violating, you know, something that the constitution of Illinois calls for and the United States Constitution and the senators and the way that's all set up for him to appoint someone to fill a vacancy. So, I don't see what the hoopla is all about.
CONAN: Well, Clarence Page, the secretary of state of Illinois, another African-American politician I think well-known to you, too.
Mr. PAGE: Yes, Jesse White.
CONAN: And indeed, he says he's not going to sign this form.
Mr. PAGE: Yeah.
CONAN: Most lawyers, I think, agree with Sophia Nelson. He's required to sign that form.
Mr. PAGE: Well, Jesse White doesn't argue on the legal level. But he says - and he said on CNN last week, you know, I consider this to be a moral stand, because he does not feel it is proper for him to affix his signature under these circumstances.
You know, Sophia's right that the law must be observed, but the Senate, I will argue, is within the Constitution. Article one, section five, gives them the power to determine who is qualified in terms of - gives them the power to review elections and returns of senators who are elected, and legal interpretations say returns includes appointments.
And that in this instance, the Senate is doing that, but it will probably refer this matter of the seating of Roland Burris to the Rules Committee, where, as the framers put into the process, the grinds (laughing) the wheels of justice and legislation can move exceedingly slow, slow enough, Democratic senators hope, for the impeachment process back in Illinois to catch up with Blagojevich and install Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn, who presumably would appoint a new senator or ratify this particular Senate appointment. He would have that power. But this is all within the law. There is law, and there is politics, and neither should impede the other.
CONAN: Going back to you, Sophia Nelson. Isn't there a Supreme Court ruling that would seem to imply that the Senate's powers to review these decisions whether or not to seat somebody are pretty much restricted to whether they qualified by age and residency and that sort of thing?
Ms. NELSON: I was going to bring up that point, actually, not even thinking about the Supreme Court case. But yeah, I mean, I think it's all a matter of interpretation on how we look at article one section five that Clarence referred to. Whether or not we're talking about meeting the minimum standard, your age, your residency, et cetera, et cetera.
Or we're getting into murky territory again when we start talking about people being questionable or whether or not you're tainted. I mean, I don't think anybody argues that Mr. Burris is tainted, do they? I mean, is that on the table? Because I haven't heard that one.
I do know that Blagojevich has issues. But he's still the governor of the state. And in the United States of America, we honor the rule of law. We follow laws. We have peaceful successions of power and transfers of power. And that's what we do. And I'm just troubled by what I see going on right now.
Mr. PAGE: Well, the process is tainted, some people would argue. There were, for example, Danny - Congressman Danny Davis, who was offered the job before Roland Burris, who turned it down because, as he put it, the process was murky. There are others, some candidates presumably more qualified than Burris, who stepped aside after Senate Democrats announced they were not going to accept any appointment that Blagojevich sent. Blagojevich's lawyers said he wasn't going to send anybody. Last week, he turned the other cheek and decided he was going to send somebody. And that has launched this process that we see now. Love it or hate it, the Democratic senators - and the Republican senators; presumably, they will have some allies - are conducting the process the way it was written out.
And certainly, Democratic senators had not acted to review this candidate. They would've been beat up by Republicans, after at least the past couple of years of being able to beat up Republicans for various corruption cases. Other gentlemen who were charged but not convicted, who stepped aside or were forced aside or forced - Tom Delay, forced out of his leadership position in the House. I could go on and on. So this kind of thing has ample precedent.
CONAN: It is politics and theater...
Mr. PAGE: Oh yeah.
CONAN: As we heard. 800-989-8255, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Paul is with us from Toledo.
PAUL (Caller): Hi. First, I guess I want to assure you I'm not the Paul from the previous segment. The screener was worried about me.
CONAN: OK. Your voice sounds different. So, either that or a talented mimic.
PAUL: Apparently. I have not heard anybody anywhere discuss - I'm curious as to why it is that Roland Burris would accept the appointment from Blagojevich given all the scandal. It seems like it would be sort of political suicide.
Mr. PAGE: I think he was already retired... (laughing) In effect. Roland Burris had - he's been in office for decades. He was the first African-American to be elected statewide. That was as state comptroller. Later, he was state attorney general. He has run for the governorship three times as I recall, once for mayor, once for the Senate. He's lost all five.
He's 71 years old. He had pretty much been out of politics for the last few years. But this gives him a chance to jump back in again. As he puts it, I'm senator right now, he says. He is senator designate and hasn't been certified and hasn't been - he hasn't been given the right to enter the Senate or to have a seat. All of that has yet to be worked out. But he's on his way. He could possibly win this whole debacle.
CONAN: It sounds like he's enjoying himself.
Mr. PAGE: Oh, he's - I think he's having a ball. I'm just watching him. Now, I've known Roland Burris for the last few decades, you know. He seems to be just having a ball here.
CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
PAUL: Yes, thanks.
CONAN: And let's go to Irfan(ph), Irfan with us from Chicago.
IRFAN (Caller): Hi, gentlemen, how are you doing?
IRFAN: My question here is, if tomorrow, someone comes out and says that Blagojevich committed the crime, then how this appointment is going to be reversed. Because Roland Burris, people don't have problem with Roland Burris. People have problem here in Illinois with Blagojevich.
Mr. PAGE: That's right.
CONAN: Well, what would that do legally, Sophia Nelson? Would this somehow retroactively affect this appointment?
Ms. NELSON: One of the things that I hope that we begin the focus on in our politics is the difference between politics, reality, law, and what we can and can't do. And I'm not going to get mixed up in this political discussion because I'm looking at whether or not the man has been legally appointed and whether or not he ought to be seated.
And I haven't heard a solid argument yet from anyone put forward on legal grounds that the governor isn't the sitting governor of Illinois, that he hasn't been stripped of his powers. Therefore, he's entitled to appoint, as is his constitutional duty under the state, as well as in line with the U.S. Constitution, and the secretary of state has to ratify.
So therefore, to answer the question, this is a legal issue. It is not a political issue. And you know, I love politics. I'm a political junkie. But this one just - that dog won't hunt, as they say. It just - it doesn't add up. It's preposterous why this man is not being seated. Mr. Burris's character isn't in question, and how hard is it to be qualified for the Senate? Let's be real honest about that, guys, come on. I mean...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PAGE: But we're not talking about just job qualifications here. We are talking about membership in a club. And this - the Constitution gives the Senate not only this power to review who gets seated, but makes them the ultimate authority. I am told that this is not appealable to the Supreme Court if they decide they are not going to seat someone. They just can't - under the existing Powell v. McCormack decision, they said the House could not make up new rules in unseating Adam Clayton Powell, who was elected, by the way, but that they could review the old rules - existing rules and make a determination in that manner. In this particular case, we have an appointee, not someone elected. And the court at that - the high court at that time - it was the late '60s - made a very large argument in favor of the right of the people to select their leaders to be respected.
CONAN: Irfan, thanks for the call. I suspect the Senate Rules Committee may also be busy with the Minnesota Senate seat anyway...
Mr. PAGE: They've got a few things to be concerned about right now.
CONAN: We're talking with Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune and Sophia Nelson, who writes - lawyer and editor of politicalintersectionblog.com. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And might not the Illinois state legislature, the Democrats who control that legislature, have avoided this entire mess by simply passing a law that would've called for a special election, Clarence Page?
Mr. PAGE: The legislature's kind of in a horse race right now. You could say the Senate Democrats in Washington are trying to slow the process down while in Springfield, Illinois, the Democrats are trying to speed that process up.
CONAN: Well, the impeachment process, but they could've passed a law saying, we're going to have a special election to fill this seat.
Mr. PAGE: Well, they could've done that right at the beginning.
CONAN: Of course, they might have lost that election.
Mr. PAGE: They might've lost that. So yeah, you know, the - here's where politics gets really ridiculous. But it does come back to the public. You know, does the Illinois public, are they offended by the idea that the Senate Democrats in Illinois are trying to rig the process. In other words, we'll have an election if we know we're going to win. But if we're not going to win, we won't have that election.
Ms. NELSON: Right, right.
CONAN: Here's something we have from Anna(ph). As a resident of the state of Illinois, I keep hearing all this talk about the people of Illinois need representation. However, I've seen no polls regarding whether the people of the state of Illinois accept this appointment as their representative in the Senate. Given the governor's approval ratings, I don't think it would be accepted by most voters in the state. Sophia Nelson, I think his approval rating is down about 13 percent.
Mr. PAGE: 13 percent according to the Tribune poll, yeah.
CONAN: Should that play a factor in this?
Ms. NELSON: Right. Well, I think that, just like California did with their governor before Schwarzenegger became the governor.
CONAN: Gray Davis, yeah.
Ms. NELSON: They have the process - yeah, Gray Davis - they have the process of recall. If they want to get rid of the guy, they can. And I don't argue that point. All I'm saying is, right now, right here, he is the sitting governor, and he has made a lawful appointment that should be honored by the U.S. Senate. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Illinois Constitution does not have a recall provision.]
And again, I want to say, I am not one of these people that's real happy about the country club mentality of the Senate. That's not what we should have in a republic. And I'm kind of over those guys up there on the hill thinking that they can decide the qualifications of this one or that one when their houses aren't usually in order either. I mean, let's take a look at Ted Stevens and how they...
CONAN: He's not going to be in that next Senate.
Ms. NELSON: No no no no no. But I'm saying, they were giving him the benefit of the doubt. You know, they applauded the guy when he stands up, and he gets indicted for corruption and gets sentenced...
CONAN: But not after he got convicted.
Ms. NELSON: Well, my point is, they still gave him the benefit of the doubt because he was in the club. And he was tainted. Clearly, he was tainted. Anyone want to argue he wasn't tainted?
Mr. PAGE: That's true. He was. You know, again, ultimately, it comes back to the voters, if not now, a couple of years from now in Illinois or various other years. Is the public outrage enough by this, or do they see the current Senate as being a heck of a lot more democratic than it was in the early years of this country, when its members were appointed and not elected. So we have those different arguments to go back and forth.
CONAN: Let's see if we get one last caller in, and this will be Mary, Mary with us from Eugene, Oregon.
MARY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'd like to say that I for the most part agree with the young lady here. I think that the Illinois state legislature did not move fast enough. You know, they talked big for a few days about taking the power away from the governor to make this appointment, and they didn't do it. And he made a legal appointment. Nobody has brought anything up about Mr. Burris. You know, everybody seems to think he's OK.
But, you know, I think the young lady is right. The appointment was legal. And I also think that, again, as she was saying, that the Senate has put up with a lot of stuff. I mean, you know, my understanding is that, you know, people used to have to bring Strom Thurmond in and lift his hand to push a button, and they put up with that. So, you know, what's the deal here?
CONAN: OK, Mary. Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
CONAN: Clarence Page, we're going to give you the last words here.
Mr. PAGE: Well, I don't doubt that it's legal. As I've said, I just add that it's also legal for the Senate to review this appointment, to defer to the Rules Committee, and to drag their heels with the process - the Democrats hope, until they can get Blagojevich impeached and a candidate who's not similarly tainted sent to Washington. We'll see.
CONAN: Maybe even the same candidate.
Mr. PAGE: That's right.
CONAN: If you'd like to see what Clarence Page and Sophia Nelson wrote about this, you can go to npr.org, click on Talk of the Nation. Clarence Page's column is syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. He was with us here in Studio 3A. Sophia Nelson writes for politicalintersectionblog.com, with us today from our member station in Washington - Arlington, rather, Virginia, WETA. Thanks very much to you both. Appreciate it.
Mr. PAGE: Thank you.
Ms. NELSON: Thanks.
CONAN: And this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.