Dems' Illinois Embarrassment Continues With Latest Burris Saga : It's All Politics Remember how Rod Blagojevich was the most embarrassing thing to happen to Illinois Democrats? Has Roland Burris replaced him?
NPR logo Dems' Illinois Embarrassment Continues With Latest Burris Saga

Dems' Illinois Embarrassment Continues With Latest Burris Saga

As bad as the circus surrounding Rod Blagojevich got -- and, let's face it, it got pretty bad -- one thing was widely heard throughout all of it: At least Roland Burris is an honest guy.

Once Blagojevich, then the governor of Illinois, was arrested Dec. 9 on corruption charges -- one of them alleging that he wanted to sell a vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder -- Democratic leaders in Washington said that even if the governor were brazen enough to still go ahead and name someone to fill Barack Obama's seat, they still wouldn't accept the appointment.

Blagojevich went ahead anyway, naming Burris on Dec. 30. Senate Democrats -- led by Majority Leader Harry Reid and Whip Dick Durbin (and backed by the president-elect) -- tried to prevent it, coming up with what they claimed was a constitutional barrier. That went nowhere. Ultimately, they threw up their hands, said OK, Roland, you win. But first, you must testify at Blagojevich's impeachment trial in Springfield. Tell them all about your contacts with the governor or representatives of the governor.

On Jan. 5, Burris sent a sworn affidavit to the impeachment committee that "there was not any contact" between himself and anyone associated with the governor. Three days later, appearing before the committee in person, his story changed a bit. In answer to a question, Burris acknowledged that he'd had a conversation with a former chief of staff to the governor and his interest in the Senate seat did come up.

On Jan. 15, Burris was sworn in as a senator. Exactly two weeks later, the impeached Blagojevich was convicted by the state Senate and removed from office.

Fast forward to earlier this month. Burris sent a "supplemental affidavit" to the impeachment committee, saying that he spoke to many Blagojevich allies about the Senate seat, including Robert Blagojevich, the governor's brother and chief fundraiser. The brother even asked Burris if he could do some fundraising for the governor, but Burris said he couldn't.

As if that weren't damning enough, now we learn this week that Burris actually attempted to raise money for Blago. While he was hoping to be appointed to the Senate! He didn't raise any money. But still ...

Why Burris decided this week to reveal that bit of information is part of the mystery. Many feel that he must have figured that Robert Blagojevich's phone calls were probably monitored by the feds, though he denies this. No matter. The Senate Ethics Committee in Washington has opened a preliminary inquiry (which is perfunctory), and Sangamon County State's Attorney John Schmidt (with jurisdiction in Springfield) has begun a perjury investigation of his own.

Today the Chicago Tribune editorially called on Burris to resign:

The benefit of the doubt had already been stretched thin and taut by the time Roland Burris offered his third version of the events leading to his appointment to the U.S. Senate. It finally snapped like a rubber band, popping him on that long Pinocchio nose of his, when he came out with version four. ... The story gets worse with every telling.

Enough. Roland Burris must resign.

The Washington Post had a similar editorial today.

Not leaving. In a long-scheduled speech today at the Chicago City Club, Burris said everyone should "stop the rush to judgment." He took no questions. (My favorite Burris line from his speech: "A new wind is blowing across Washington." He clearly missed the irony.)

D.C. Dems. They're in wait-and-see mode, but neither Reid nor Durbin (who is in Greece) hid his disappointment. It's as if they knew from the beginning that anyone who was in any way connected to Blagojevich was tainted.

Opponents. Right now the one Democrat who looks most likely to jump into the 2010 race is state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who interestingly is in Greece this week with Durbin. Two members of Congress, Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Danny Davis, clearly want to be senator, but would they take Burris on in the primary? Also mentioned is state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, but the feeling all along is that she wants to be governor. (And who knows if Pat Quinn, the Democrat who succeeded Blagojevich as governor, will run for the job ... though the guess is that he will.)

And what about Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.? His name once headed the list of those likely to succeed Obama in the Senate. But now his name may be more sullied than anyone else's in the wake of the Blagojevich seat-selling scandal (other than Burris', that is).

Waiting in the wings is likely to be Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican from Chicago's north suburbs. Given the farcical nature of Democratic politics in Illinois these past 10 weeks, Kirk could win the seat in November.

Primary colors. Adding to the mystery is the uncertainty over when the 2010 primary will take place. Held on the third Tuesday in March as long as I can remember, lawmakers moved it up to early February in 2007 in an effort to give Barack Obama a boost in his presidential bid. It is currently scheduled for Feb. 2, 2010. But now Gov. Quinn is hinting that he may want to move it back to September. He says the campaign season is too long with an early primary. Others say the reason he wants to move the date is to give him more of an opportunity to win over doubters in his own party that he's up for the job of governor.

Once upon a time, Durbin was among those who called for a special election to fill the Senate seat. Other Democrats, both in Washington and Springfield, fearing they could lose the seat that way, quickly shot it down. Is this any better?