Durbin: Race Was Factor in Seating Burris — but Two Months Later It Wasn’t About Race

Mar 2, 2009 11:32am

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: The strained relationship between Illinois’ senators is growing even more tense, with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., saying over the weekend that race was, after all, a factor in the Senate’s decision to relent and allow Roland Burris to be seated. Durbin cited the fact that Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., used racially charged language when then-governor Rod Blagojevich named Burris to the Senate seat. “My colleague from Illinois, Congressman Bobby Rush, made strong statements along those [racial] lines,” Durbin said on WGN-AM radio, the Chicago Tribune reports. “They were painful and hurtful, and it became part of this calculation.” Blagojevich was pretty clearly playing the race card in choosing Burris, an African-American former statewide officeholder, to replace President Obama. At the press conference announcing Blagojevich’s choice of Burris, Rush said: “I don’t think that anyone, any U.S. senator who’s sitting [in] the Senate right now, wants to go on record to deny one African-American from being seated in the U.S. Senate.” Said Rush: "I will ask you to not hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer." Senate Democrats, including Durbin and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, initially vowed not to allow anyone chosen by Blagojevich to be seated. They relented amid pressure from black lawmakers, who contended that the Senate had no legal standing to deny Burris his seat. But Democrats were adamant at the time that their position on Burris was related to Senate rules and the ethical cloud over Blagojevich — and had nothing to do with Burris or his race. “The bottom line is this: This is not about race,” Durbin told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in early January. “We have a proud record in the land of Lincoln of electing African-American candidates to statewide office. There is no question about race. When we said at the beginning, Democratic senators said that we are not going to seat an appointment from Gov. Blagojevich it was before he had chosen anyone, black, white or brown. So it has nothing to do with race.” What might have changed? Blagojevich is long gone, but a cloud hovers over Burris now, centering on possible false statements made before an Illinois legislative panel regarding contacts Burris had with Blagojevich and his emissaries before he was named to the Senate. Durbin said last week that he told Burris he would resign if he were in his position. But Burris is vowing to stay on — and hasn’t said whether he’d seek a full term in 2010, heightening Democratic fears that they could lose Obama’s old Senate seat in one of the bluest states in the nation. On Monday, the Chicago Tribune editorial board called for state officials to schedule a special election to replace Burris even if he doesn’t resign — a move with little legal precedent that perhaps offers a way out of the political mess. “Think of this special election as its own little stimulus — for election judges and, more important, for a concept that some Illinois pols would rather ignore: Here in America, the people choose their representatives,” reads the Tribune editorial. In this context, Durbin and Senate Democrats may be looking to go back and append a little asterisk next to their decision to seat Burris. UPDATE: To add a little bit of urgency to this, Burris has launched a bare-bones Website for his 2010 reelection effort, as reported this morning by Politico.

Asked if the Website indicated the launch of Sen. Burris’ 2010 reelection effort, Burris spokesman James O’Connor said, "Sen. Burris has made no determination concerning the 2010 race." A Burris aide says the site has been up since Sen. Burris was sworn in as Barack Obama’s successor. In response to Durbin’s comments and the Chicago Tribune editorial, O’Connor said, “Senator Burris’ appointment to the U.S. Senate was a legal process, not a racial one." ABC News’ David Chalian contributed to this report.

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