Burris Roils Illinois Politics

CHICAGO— Sen. Roland W. Burris’ political crisis began just days ago, but it has already reshaped the electoral landscape here.

Almost immediately, Burris’ political dilemma became a heated issue in the March 3 primary race for Illinois’ 5th Congressional district, and it has shaped the early jostling for the 2010 races for governor and for Burris’ Senate seat.

Burris, who has said he will continue to serve in the Senate, is planning to return to Washington from Chicago on Monday for legislative business. His defiance to calls for his resignation comes despite the week that has upended his political career and has effectively left him as the state’s chief political punching bag, a role he's inherited from the man who appointed him, ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

It started last Saturday with the disclosure that Burris had submitted a new affidavit to state legislators saying he’d expressed interest in the Senate seat to six different Blagojevich associates, despite telling state legislators under oath on Jan. 8 that he spoke with just one associate—and saying in a Jan. 5 affidavit that he talked with none. The controversy grew on Monday, when Burris for the first time said that he had indeed tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to raise funds for the governor at the same time he was seeking the Senate seat, revelations that helped initiate separate Senate and state probes into whether he committed perjury against his earlier sworn statements.

Burris has insisted that he will continue serving in the Senate and that he did nothing wrong in the process leading up to his Dec. 30 appointment, and has been consistent in his statements about it.

But few politicians have been willing to extend him an olive branch. The state’s senior senator, Democrat Richard J. Durbin, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday that the junior senator was extending the “Blagojevich burlesque,” and its governor, Democrat Pat Quinn, said on Friday that Burris should step down to put the “interests of the people of Illinois ahead of his own.”

Though the top three candidates in the special election to replace fill Rahm Emanuel’s vacant House seat, all Democrats, have also called on Burris to resign, he’s nonetheless become one of the race’s hot issues.

The crowd of about one hundred people at a candidate forum at a church in the city’s North Side on Friday was mostly quiet as the candidates laid out their diverse views, but when one candidate said that all 16 of them agreed that Burris should resign, they erupted in applause.

In an interview, Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley took a shot at state Rep. John Fritchey (D), who during the Jan. 8 testimony objected three times as Burris was being questioned: one about Burris’ personal thoughts upon the governor’s arrest; another about what he would have done if he were aware of a quid-pro-quo arrangement regarding the seat; and whether Burris had told party leaders if he’d run for the Senate seat in 2010.

“This was the time to pour transparency through the process,” Quigley said. “If [Fritchey] felt the need to protect him for what he might say or how bad it would look, then [Burris] should never have been the appointment.”

Fritchey has pushed back hard, accusing Quigley of a “shallow attempt to try to hoodwink the public.” His office has put together a two-page fact sheet saying he supported other probing questions about Burris, and objected because those questions were either “partially or wholly” unrelated to the appointment.

As the lone black senator’s troubles cast a cloud on his future, it’s not clear who his black Chicago base will support, which might open the door to a bid from Cheryle R. Jackson, and African-American who is head of the Chicago Urban League and is considering a Senate run.

Quinn, who too office after the legislature expelled Blagojevich, has yet to announce if he’ll run for a full term in 2010. He’s facing the prospect of a tough potential primary opponent in Lisa Madigan, the state’s attorney general and daughter of the speaker of the state House, Michael Madigan.

If Burris stays a senator, or if the special-election bill stalls, Quinn could appear weak after his high-profile call Friday for Burris to leave and for a special election to fill the vacancy. Conversely, he could win political points if he is seen as forcing out the man who some say is the state’s new Blagojevich.

“Quinn pushing the special strengthens him versus Madigan, especially if he pushes out Burris,” said one Democratic strategist with close ties to the state.

Burris’s advisers, meanwhile, are furious at what they regard as the unfair portrayals of a 71-year-old man with 30-plus years of public service as a criminal. They say many of the politicians attacking him are simply trying to score political points by striking an easy target.

“He has asked the public and officials to stop their rush to judgment and allow all the facts to come out,” said Jim O’Connor, the senator’s new communications director. “There is a legal process going forward and he has promised to fully cooperate.”

At least one other Illinois politician seems skeptical about the motives of his anti-Burris peers.

“Some have legitimate concerns, [but] I think some of them are being disingenuous,” Rep. Danny Davis, a Chicago Democrat now in his seventh term, told POLITICO. “I think it’s a nice political hit.”

Fritchey in turn criticized both Quigley and his Sarah Feigenholtz, the third frontrunner for the seat, for being “on the sidelines” while he had been a leading Blagojevich critic and was pushing ethics legislation in the state legislature.

Feigenholtz, meanwhile, said that she immediately called for a special election to fill the Senate seat once Blagojevich was arrested. “People are tired of the political bickering, they don’t want to wake up to this every day,” she said.

Burris troubles have also informed the early position for his Senate seat, which comes up for election in 2010. If he ultimately resigns or is forced from office and the legislature then establishes a special election before November 2010, that could help spur a run from the Illinois House members who are considering one—Reps. Janice Schakowsky (D), Mark Kirk (R) and Peter Roskam (R) since they wouldn’t have to resign to run for the seat.

Schakowsky was among the first to criticize Burris after this week's revelations began emerging, saying the governor and legislature have the constitutional authority to end Burris' term by holding a special election.

Schawkowsky’s potential primary rival, State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, called on Burris to resign on Friday, saying that the new senator “violated the public trust.” And some believe that Giannoulias could benefit in a shortened special election from his impressive fundraising chops.