The Burris Circus and the Politics of Race

Race issue is injected into scandal over Obama's former Senate seat.

January 6, 2009, 5:10 PM

Jan. 7, 2009— -- If Roland Burris winds up being seated as the junior senator from Illinois, as seems increasingly likely, it will be in no small part because of the politics of race.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is scheduled to meet with Burris Wednesday morning, with momentum building for a deal that would allow Burris to fill the Senate seat through 2010.

Reid and other Senate Democrats promised not to seat anyone Gov. Rod Blagojevich sent to Washington.

But the image of a veteran black officeholder being barred from entering a U.S. Senate that now has precisely zero African-American members injected racial politics into the tawdry scandal over President-elect Barack Obama's old Senate seat.

It's not a coincidence. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill., had race in mind when he appointed Roland Burris the first black statewide officeholder in Illinois history, to fill Obama's seat.

Just moments after Burris was named last week, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, warned the press not to "hang or lynch" Burris based on the alleged wrongdoing of the governor who appointed him.

"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," Rush said last week.

In that vein, Blagojevich got the photo op he was looking for Tuesday when Burris and a few African-American aides were rebuffed at the Senate door and forced to hold a press conference across the street from the Capitol.

Few other lawmakers are going as far as Rush in suggesting that racial considerations were at play in the Senate's decision. The Congressional Black Caucus has not gotten involved as an organization, despite pressure from some of its members to weigh in on Burris' behalf.

Still, several black lawmakers have broken with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Obama -- and, for that matter, Illinois' African-American Secretary of State Jesse White, who refuses to certify Burris' appointment -- in saying they believe Burris should be seated.

"Process does not trump legality. Legally, this will turn out so that Mr. Burris will be seated," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.

Hastings said he does not believe race entered into the thinking of Senate leaders, but added, "The only reason race matters is that race always matters."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the stakes are "so much bigger than race."

"This has nothing to do with color. This is about procedure. This is about legal issues. This is about constitutional rights -- what is right and it should concern all of us," Cummings said.

"One of the things that I do know ... the Congressional Black Caucus has always stood for is fairness, period," he added. "This is about being what is fair. If Mr. Burris were of another color, I'd be saying the same thing. Because, again, it's a legal issue."

Senate Diversity Record Abysmal

As Blagojevich and his political handlers know, the U.S. Senate has an abysmal track record when it comes to diversity. Obama was only the third black senator elected since Reconstruction, and Obama was the only black senator in the body during the four years he served.

The Senate currently has three Hispanic members, but two of them are on their way out. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., was tapped to join Obama's Cabinet, and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., is retiring his seat at the end of 2010.

African-Americans have had little success in entering the legislative body sometimes called the "world's most exclusive club."

Before Obama took office in 2005, only two African-Americans won Senate seats via the popular vote, and they served a total of three terms between them. Edward Brooke, R-Mass., served from 1967 to 1979, and Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., occupied the seat that Obama would later take, serving from 1993 to 1999.

Burris' appointment was cast against that backdrop, and that may be one reason Senate leaders eventually find a peaceable solution that involves Burris taking the Senate seat after all.

Burris is slated to meet with Reid on Wednesday. Reid has privately expressed concern about Burris' ability to hold onto the Senate seat, leading to speculation that Reid could drop his opposition if Burris commits to only staying in office through 2010, allowing Democrats to find a stronger candidate.

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