The African-American community’s unified efforts to retain Roland Burris as the lone black U.S. senator has chastened national Democrats, forcing them to accept a scandal-scarred candidate to fill the vacant Senate seat of President Barack Obama. This race-themed political drama is unfolding in a state that, just two months earlier, was basking in the glow of Obama’s multiracial political success.
Burris is a long-time minion of the Illinois Democratic Party, elected four times to statewide office, including three terms as state comptroller and one as attorney general. He has also run unsuccessfully for mayor of Chicago, the U.S. Senate and for governor.
Long a venerable party hack, Burris was elected vice chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1985, specifically to offset the progressive political forces mobilized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. However, Burris, now 71, has chosen the role of political insurgent, defying calls from the Democratic establishment to step down.
Through it all, the black community in Burris’s Chicago home base, urged him to hang tough and resist the pressure to resign. Black activists and political leaders saw the attempt to oust Burris as a barely disguised attempt to recover the Senate seat for a preferred white candidate.
After some initial resistance in the U.S. Senate – and after Burris testified in the Illinois House that he had no substantive contact with now-impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich concerning the coveted seat – the congressional body reluctantly welcomed its lone black member. (In case anyone missed it, the Illinois legislature removed Blagojevich from office on Jan. 29, after U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald filed a criminal complaint against the former governor with various pay-to-play schemes. Blagojevich still denies any wrongdoing.)
Meanwhile, Burris seemed to be settling in, providing badly needed Democratic votes for the contentious legislative battles of the early Obama administration.
But in mid-February, the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that Burris submitted a supplementary affidavit to the Illinois House that admitted additional contacts with aides to Blagojevich – including Blagojevich’s brother, Rob – that Burris failed to disclose in earlier testimony.
Burris claims the contacts were made before the governor’s Dec. 9 arrest and merely reflect an ongoing political relationship. Although Burris was Blagojevich’s political rival in the 2002 gubernatorial primary, he, like most other party luminaries, also helped raise funds for him – the first Democratic governor in Illinois in many years.
The affidavit triggered increased and more fevered demands for Burris to resign.
However, Chicago’s black community mobilized stiff resistance for his resignation, and, through community radio stations and several South Side churches, organized strong support for the newly minted senator.
It seems a bit incongruent that these race-based tensions should erupt in the same state that launched Obama, a black candidate whose political success hinted at a new era of racial cooperation and progress.
That assessment was naive at best, ignoring centuries of socialization and embedded structural biases. As recently revealed by the racially disparate reactions to the celebrated New York Post cartoon (that depicted a bloodied, cop-killed chimp as the author of the Obama administration’s stimulus package), we are far from a post-racial society – unless we mean the New York Post.
It’s possible, in fact, that Obama’s victory could flush out even more evidence of racial hostility. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, has tracked a rise in the number and activity of various hate groups across the country and it attributes their growth to Obama’s election and the faltering economy.
Many of Burris’s black supporters believe that racial motives were key to those who opposed his Senate seating.
“The notion that a black incumbent would be less likely to retain the seat is the argument often advanced for opposing Burris,” argues Delmarie Cobb, Burris’s media consultant. “Well, although that’s disguised as a political argument, it’s really an assumption based on racial biases.”
There’s a reason why only three black U.S. senators have served in Congress since Reconstruction, Burris’ supporters argue, but that reason won’t stop the fourth one.