Opinion: Inside Blagojevich’s bold, brash &*%$^# pick to replace Obama


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There’s something weirdly fascinating about professional wrestling. Not that we’ve ever watched it ourselves, mind you. But a, uh, friend tells us that you know someone is gonna get thrown out of the ring onto the fragile tables sitting over there and you know that guy’s gonna struggle to get up and then grab a folding chair to swing back into the ring.

Neither contestant apparently watched last week’s match because one of them still walks into the other’s elbow. And when the elbow guy starts arguing with the referee, he doesn’t think to look behind for the folding chair coming down to bloody his head.


It’s a lot like watching Illinois politics. We too should have seen this latest move coming. Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s brazen, bold blitz of naming Roland Burris to fill the vacant Barack Obama Senate seat is at once a brilliant and cunning and cynical political move.

In the last hour before the announcement, Senate Democrats, including Illinois’ Dick Durbin, realized they’d been outfoxed, hastily conferred by phone and tried to duck by desperately announcing they weren’t gonna seat Blagojevich’s pick anyway.

A vacationing Obama, who’s got nothing to do with it anymore and once vowed to stay out of picking his successor, sent word anyway from Hawaii that he sides with Durbin against Blagojevich, whom he helped elect in 2002.

Too late.

The governor said the other day he was going to fight, fight, fight his case to his last dying breath.

So Sunday night he calls up the wily, old, not always successful Burris who’s always dreamed of an office higher than state comptroller or attorney general, both of which he held. The son of a railway worker, Burris is a Howard University Law School graduate who as a teenager helped integrate a local swimming pool.

Never lacking in confidence, Burris even hopelessly challenged current Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley back in the 1990s. Burris has state political experience going back to the ‘60s. He was the first black person elected to statewide office in Illinois and did it as a native of southern Illinois, parts of which culturally and geographically are farther south than Richmond, the one-time Confederate capitol.

Burris has been party loyal. He’s been beaten often, though not bowed, by other Democrats -- Paul Simon in 1984 to win Chuck Percy’s Senate seat -- including Blagojevich in 2002. The 2002 race was the third straight Democratic gubernatorial primary that Burris lost. (See Burris and Blagojevich speak for themselves in the videos below.)


But he came around to support good old Rod in that general election and the 2006 reelection, as did both Obama and his new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Unlike, say, Caroline Kennedy,....

...Burris has maintained his dues, making regular campaign donations and appearances to help fellow Dem pols even when he’s not in office. His company has received some state work. And he’s said to have been offering himself for the Obama vacancy ever since the nomination flap began.

You never know what might happen in politics, right?

And now it has. Here’s what Blagojevich did with a straight face: He showed he does intend to fight. He showed he’s still in charge of the governor’s office. He pointed out the Democrat-controlled Legislature’s refusal to call a special election and how it’s spinning wheels ineffectively debating the governor’s impeachment.

He showcased the Democratic state attorney general’s court loss trying to suspend him. He underlined the need to have two Illinois senators starting next Tuesday when the new Congress convenes. Who could oppose that?

Blagojevich repaid Burris for his support. He nominated an experienced party loyalist who has never lost to a Republican. He chose a downstate Democrat for unity, though the governor is from Chicago’s North Side. He picked a 71-year-old who won’t foreclose the developing Senate dreams of younger Illinois Democrats waiting their turn.

And, cleverest of all, he handed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid one helluva hot potato. Here, catch this, Harry! You say you won’t seat my Obama replacement choice? Blago says. Let’s see you exclude an experienced African American Democrat to replace an inexperienced African American Democrat to be the Senate’s sole African American.

While Illinois’ now weak Republicans sputter about ‘Blagojevich Democrats’ igniting another constitutional crisis, come next week the public fight will be more over seating Burris in Washington than unseating Blago in Springfield.

On Friday, as Emanuel informed the governor in a recent pal-sy letter, he will resign his 5th District House seat, which starts the 115-day clock for the governor to call a special election. He can also allow party primaries to occur.


You can bet that behind the scenes Blagojevich and his father-in-law, Richard Mell, a powerful Chicago alderman, will have much to say about who runs and who wins that North Side district seat which, oh lookee here, Blagojevich himself held for years thanks to Mell.

Without that chummy, non-indicting resignation letter from Emanuel, Blagojevich might have seen to it that some bright, up-and-comer was assigned the seat, which could be a sinecure, as it was for longtime Ways & Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski until prison intervened. Blago may still do that unless Emanuel stays mum about the Illinois scandal, which he’s done brilliantly so far, though you can’t be White House chief of staff and stay silent forever in Africa.

Now, the Democratic winner in the 5th is likely to be similar to the staffer appointed to fulfill Joe Biden’s Senate term from Delaware, a spaceholder until Beau Biden, the state attorney general and Joe’s boy, finishes his National Guard duty in Iraq. And in Emanuel’s case, until he tires of his Obama chief of staff duties and wants to return to the House and resume his climb to replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker someday.

And they’re all rid of this Obama guy who’s gone off to play in the minor leagues of Washington and didn’t make local reform waves anyway.

See how it all fits together so nicely? Now, that’s the kind of familiar change that Chicago politicians can honestly believe in.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Top photo: Roland Burris. Blagojevich, left, Obama and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Credits: Associated Press