U.S. Sen. Roland Burris and ‘buzzard’s luck’

By way of full disclosure, I worked as press secretary for U.S. Senate appointee Roland Burris’s first statewide campaign for Illinois State Comptroller in 1976. I was never paid a dime, and never got out of Chicago’s Loop with the candidate. It was that kind of a campaign. It went nowhere.

Roland Burris has been appointed to fill the remaining two years of the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. The Senate Democratic leadership and 50 members of the Democratic Caucus have vowed not to admit him, or anyone else appointed by embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, because of the governor’s arrest on so-called “pay-to-play” corruption charges.

Although Senator-designate Burris has had many subsequent statewide political and electoral victories (he eventually won the State Comptroller’s race three times and was elected the state’s Attorney General), and I believe he will ultimately prevail in this ordeal, in his current plight in political purgatory reminds me of my first impression of this decent, honest, and ultimately honorable man. He has “buzzard’s luck.” That is: he can’t kill anything to eat, and nothing will die for him on its own.

From what has been reported out of Chicago, it seems that after months of investigating the governor, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald rushed to arrest Mr. Blagojevich before he had actually done anything criminal, just so he would not proceed to appoint so-called “Candidate No. 5″ to the Senate position, even if it meant jeopardizing his prosecution. Candidate No. 5 is said to be Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

The U.S. attorney released transcripts of embarrassing wiretaps in which the governor and his wife made many extremely crude and vulgar remarks about candidates interested in the appointment and what they needed to do to get it. That was the worst of it so far. Mr. Fitzgerald has now asked for three more months in which to bring his case before a grand jury for an indictment. In the meantime, he refuses to share his evidence with an Illinois legislative panel looking into the possible impeachment of Mr. Blagojevich, effectively stymieing the impeachment, while he tries to make a criminal case that will stick. That leaves the governor, living large and in charge, still.

So, the governor–as is his Constitutional duty–appointed Mr. Burris, a Black man to the seat being vacated by a Black man, defying Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the process. You see, the Majority Leader telephoned the Governor, reportedly suggesting a list of acceptable candidates to fill the slot. None of his suggestions were African American.

Blacks in Chicago–led by Rep. Bobby Rush and a cadre of pastors–would have none of it. They want a Black person in the seat that was once held by Sen. Carole Mosely Braun, the only African American female to ever serve in “The World’s Most Deliberative Body.” Black leaders argue that whatever Democrat might be elected to the seat in two years when the term expires, would have to come to Chicago’s 1 million-strong Black Southside population and to its 500,000-strong Westside population for the winning vote margin. So, they argue, why shouldn’t they help choose that candidate? Indeed, why shouldn’t the candidate be Black?

That’s where the standoff remains. Embarrassed, outraged state officials can’t do anything to bring down the governor–who I imagine still has the Constitutional power to pardon criminals, and to even call for a special election to fill the House seat of Rahm Emmanuel, the President-elect’s choice to be his Chief of Staff.

Meanwhile, Mr. Burris remains in limbo. He wants the Senate seat. Who wouldn’t? But Democrats in the Senate vow to refuse to seat him, a scenario similar to the case of former Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who was elected despite embarrassing allegations and charges against him…not to mention his legendary arrogance and bombast, which in the late 1960s was way over the top for a Black politician, even a powerful Committee Chairmen with tons of seniority.

So, Roland Burris can’t kill anything on his own in this drama, and nothing seems to want to die for him. Just like when I met him in 1976, he once again seems to suffer from Buzzard’s Luck. But if his past record in Illinois politics is any guide to his potential for future success, look for Roland Burris to eventually take a seat in the U.S. Senate during this 111th Congress.

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