Blagojevich Names Pick To Fill Obama Senate Seat Illinois Gov. has named longtime Chicago politician Roland Burris to fill the seat vacated by Barack Obama. The 71-year-old Burris is a former state attorney general and was the first black politician elected to major statewide office in Illinois. Senate Democrats say they won't seat him.
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Blagojevich Names Pick To Fill Obama Senate Seat

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Blagojevich Names Pick To Fill Obama Senate Seat

Blagojevich Names Pick To Fill Obama Senate Seat

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. A surprise move today by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): I'm here today to announce that I am appointing Roland Burris as the next United States senator from Illinois.

SIEGEL: Blagojevich, a Democrat, stood at the lectern with a smiling Roland Burris, a former Illinois attorney general and an African-American. Senate Democratic leaders quickly vowed not to seat Burris in the post formerly occupied by President-elect Barack Obama. And Mr. Obama himself issued a statement this evening saying that Burris is quote, "a fine man," but agreeing that the Senate can not accept any appointment made by the governor.

BLOCK: Blagojevich was arrested earlier this month on federal corruption charges. Many members of his party have urged him to step down, and they've said that any Senate appointment he makes will be tainted. I'm joined by Ben Calhoun of Chicago Public Radio. And Ben, this was a surprise announcement today. It was also a very strange news conference. Why don't you describe the scene for us?

Mr. BEN CALHOUN: Well, it was a conflict - there was a conflicted mood in the room. You know, there was the surprise because Governor Blagojevich had said that he did not plan to make this appointment. His defense attorney had said he did not plan to make this appointment in the wake of all the push back they'd gotten at the state and federal level. But there was also a certain lack of surprise among the people who know Governor Blagojevich in terms of his penchant for sort of defiant and - defiant behavior and political theater. There was one reporter, as I left the room, who compared it to the final scene of Al Pacino's "Scarface," when he goes out guns blazing.

BLOCK: Well, yeah. For a man who said he didn't want to hog the limelight, he seemed perfectly happy to share in the limelight, today. Tell us about Roland Burris. He's been in Illinois politics for many years.

Mr. CALHOUN: He has. He's been a bit of a fixture in Illinois politics. He was the state comptroller and then he was the Illinois attorney general. But I would say that his place now is more defined by the end of his career, which was sort of trying to make the transition from the minor leagues to the major leagues. He ran for governor, he ran for Senate, he ran for mayor of the city of Chicago, and he lost all of those races over the course of more than a decade. And so, he'd sort of started to fade into the background. Because of that, he wasn't real close to the top of anybody's list for this appointment, even though he'd tried to put himself in the mix.

BLOCK: And still many questions about whether he would ever actually serve. The Illinois Secretary of State, Jesse White, said today that because of the corruption scandal, he's not going to certify Roland Burris to fill the Senate seat. Did Mr. Burris acknowledge the troubles of Governor Blagojevich today?

Mr. CALHOUN: Well, you know, sort of what's crucial for them here because everyone - you know, at the state and the federal level, they've said that they won't take an appointee if Governor Blagojevich - you could tell that they knew that it was crucial for them to put as much difference between the two of them. The governor did it, and this was how Roland Burris did it when asked.

Mr. ROLAND BURRIS (Former Attorney General, Illinois): I have no comment on what the governor's circumstance is. And as a former attorney general of this state, I know, and I think most of you all know, that in this legal process, you're innocent until you're proven guilty.

BLOCK: There's another factor that came up today and that's the question of race. The Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush came to the front of the room, and he said the country needs African-American senators, and he didn't stop there. Let's take a listen.

Representative BOBBY RUSH (Democrat, Illinois): And I will ask you, tonight, not to hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointor(ph).

Mr. CALHOUN: You know, neither the governor nor Burris have a lot of political leverage here. But this is one political pressure point for them. Barack Obama was the singular African-American member of the Senate, and people in Illinois have said they would like to see an African-American replace him. As an African-American, Roland Burris brings this sort of - you know, it would be tougher because of that, I would say. It's the point where they can make it tougher to say no.

BLOCK: OK. Ben Calhoun of Chicago Public Radio, thanks very much.

Mr. CALHOUN: My pleasure.

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