Needed: A Grownup Democrat in Illinois

Washington Matters

Needed: A Grownup Democrat in Illinois

When the Senate begins its new year on Tuesday, it will have a full slate of serious business to attend to -- and at least one daunting political problem. What to do about Roland Burris, the man appointed by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to take Barack Obama's seat.

Burris says he's convinced the Senate will relent and let him serve. Let's hope he's wrong; that would be a big mistake. But this is a mess that could easily have been avoided if Democrats in the state Legislature had done the right thing to begin with and passed legislation creating a special election to fill the seat. Now they're stuck with the consequences of that cowardice.

When the bribery and corruption charges against the Illinois governor became public several weeks ago, Democrats of all stripes warned him not to try to appoint a candidate. Because the charges included allegations that he tried to sell Obama's vacant seat for personal gain, Democrats insisted no appointee could be considered legitimate. But instead of agreeing to a special election to fill the seat, they opted to begin impeachment proceedings, assuming the governor would wait until he was ousted and his replacement could make the appointment. Democrats did that because they were afraid they'd lose the seat to Republicans if they put it to the voters.

That was doubly stupid -- first, to assume that Blagojevich would cooperate with the very people trying to hang him and second, to refuse to put their trust in the people of Illinois, who will get to make the decision in two years anyway. Now, they're stuck with the damage, which could be severe.


Senate Democrats in Washington have vowed to keep Burris, a 71-year old former state attorney general, from taking the seat. They will presumably refer the appointment to the Rules Committee, which will sit on it for as long as they can, waiting for impeachment. But unless Burris withdraws -- and he shows no signs of doing that -- the problem won't go away. The appointment is legal and will not die with impeachment. If it goes to the Supreme Court, it's likely the Court will rule in Burris' favor. There is precedent for that.

In the meantime, more than a few African-Americans are playing the race card, accusing the Senate of holding Burris to a higher standard because he is black. That is patently ridiculous, but it's nevertheless an uncomfortable charge for Senate Democrats to have to deal with. E.J. Dionne says this leaves Democrats with two unpleasant options: a negotiated settlement that allows Burris to take the seat if he promises not to run for re-election or all-out warfare to persuade Burris he made a mistake in accepting the job.  

In short, this is an awful situation, completely unfair to the people of Illinois. It's easy to blame Blagojevich and obviously he's being a jerk, but in fact the lion's share of the blame rests squarely in the hands of the Democrats who tried to avoid a special election. Unfortunately, it's too late for that now. We can only hope Burris sees the light and decides soon to go back into retirement from politics. That's the only way out of this that makes any sense.