A short Senate tenure for Illinois’s Burris

Democrats stand a better chance of retaining the seat in 2010 now that Burris – tarred by the Blagojevich connection – has bowed out, analysts say

By MARK GUARINO  |  Christian Science Monitor Correspondent/July 10, 2009 edition


The US Senate seat held by Roland Burris of Illinois will be up for grabs in 2010 with the announcement in Chicago Friday that Senator Burris will not run for reelection.

Burris, a Democrat and former state attorney general, was nominated to the seat under the cloud of controversy that engulfed former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Mr. Blagojevich faces 19 counts of federal corruption charges that include allegations he sought to sell the seat formerly occupied by President Obama.

“I have returned to the place where my political journey began back in 1978 – back to the South Side of Chicago – back to my community and my constituency – to announce that I will not be a candidate in the 2010 election, and that I will not run for the United States Senate,” Burris said here Friday, having already reminded his audience that he is currently the only African-American serving in the Senate.

Burris’s exit will not be mourned by Democratic Party election strategists. Senate Democrats have just this month gained the 60-vote “supermajority” that, in theory, allows them to halt any Republican filibusters. They hope to hang on to that advantage after the midterm elections, and most saw the Burris seat as vulnerable to GOP competition because he was appointed by an impeached governor.

Effectiveness diminished

The constant scrutiny since Burris’s appointment in December has overshadowed the new senator’s ability to be effective, said Ursula Lauriston, Burris’s press secretary, on Friday before the senator’s announcement.

“Everyone can see it does affect the job you’re trying to do … When you have to fight all the controversy, you can’t really say, ‘Look at all the great things I’ve done,’” says Ms. Lauriston.

On wiretap audio recorded by federal investigators in October, Burris is heard jockeying for the seat with Robert Blagojevich, the former governor’s brother and top fundraiser, and promising to send a personal check by the end of the month.

“Tell Rod to keep me in mind for that seat, would you?” Burris is heard saying.

Burris has not been consistent in recounting the circumstances of his appointment. He first claimed he did not offer any payment to Blagojevich and then acknowledged that he tried help the governor’s fundraising efforts but stopped after realizing contributions had dried up.

Fellow Democrats always tepid

Since the recordings were made public in May, polls show Illinoisians’ public support for Burris has dropped. Fellow Democrats have been critical of the Burris appointment since the beginning; Illinois’s senior senator, Richard Durbin (D), said in February that if he were in Burris’s position, he would resign.

Voters will want Ms. or Mr. Clean

With Burris walking away from the incumbency, he carries the controversy with him. Among the people said to be considering a run for the Burris seat are Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and Christopher Kennedy, the son of the late Robert Kennedy.

Because Burris was already considered a lame duck, his decision not to run will not “have a whole lot of impact” on the political landscape in Illinois, says David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

“The story here is really about Rod Blagojevich,” says Mr. Morrison. “The reason that Roland Burris has been in trouble since he accepted the nomination to the seat is all the questions in the process about what Rod Blagojevich did to fill that seat.”

Burris simply was playing by the book of many Illinois politicians “who don’t see combining policy and politics in the same conversations as a problem,” Morrison says.

“Voters no longer tolerate politicians who treat public office as something that they can play with, and Roland Burris is a casualty of that,” he says. “The worst thing you can say about Burris is that he was willing to play footsie with Rod.”

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