Defying U.S. Senate leaders and his own state’s lawmakers, Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday appointed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate. Blagojevich, accused of trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder, praised the 71-year-old Burris’ integrity and asked that the corruption allegations not "taint this good and honest man."
"The people of Illinois are entitled to have two United States senators represent them in Washington D.C.," Blagojevich said. "As governor I am required to make this appointment."
Burris, standing at the governor’s side, said he’s eager to get to work in Washington. He said he has no connection to the charges against Blagojevich, who was arrested on Dec. 9 and accused of trying to profit from appointing Obama’s replacement.
Burris was the first African-American elected to major statewide office. He’s served as Illinois’ comptroller and ran for governor three times — the last time losing to Blagojevich.
The Democratic governor’s announcement as Burris as his pick may be an empty gesture. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who must certify the appointment, said Tuesday he will not do so. And U.S. Senate leaders reiterated that they wouldn’t accept anyone appointed by Blagojevich, who was arrested Dec. 9 on federal corruption charges.
In a statement Tuesday, Senate Democrats maintained that Blagojevich should not make the appointment because it is unfair to Burris, unfair to the people of Illinois and ultimately won’t stand.
"It is truly regrettable that despite requests from all 50 Democratic Senators and public officials throughout Illinois, Gov. Blagojevich would take the imprudent step of appointing someone to the United States Senate who would serve under a shadow and be plagued by questions of impropriety," the statement said.
"Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus."
One of the accusations brought against Blagojevich is that he schemed to benefit from his power to name Obama’s replacement in the Senate. Federal prosecutors said they recorded conversations in which Blagojevich discussed appointing someone Obama favored in exchange for a position in the new president’s Cabinet or naming someone favored by a union if he got a high-level union job.
Blagojevich has faced a flood of calls for his resignation, and the Illinois House has begun impeachment proceedings. He maintains his innocence, and has vowed to stay in office.
His own lawyer said recently that there would be no point in Blagojevich naming someone to the Senate because leaders there would reject his appointment.
White, who handles the state’s paperwork, said he would not formally certify any appointment made by Blagojevich "because of the current cloud of controversy surround the governor."
It’s not clear whether White’s administrative hurdle would be enough to prevent a Blagojevich appointment from taking effect.
Burris, 71, was the first black politician elected to major statewide office in Illinois and has connections across the state. He’s a native of Centralia in southern Illinois who graduated from Southern Illinois University before earning his law degree from Howard University.
Burris served as Illinois’ comptroller from 1979 to 1991 and as the state’s attorney general from 1991 to 1995. He also served as vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1985 to 1989.
More recently, however, Burris has had a string of political disappointments.
He lost campaigns for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1994, 1998 and 2002 — the last time losing to Blagojevich. In 1995, he was badly beaten when challenging Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in the primary.
Before taking public office, Burris worked in banking and served as national executive director and chief operating officer for Operation PUSH, the Chicago-based civil rights organization.
He failed in his first brush with politics — a 1968 run for the Illinois House. But five years later, his political service got him appointed as an aide to Gov. Dan Walker.
Burris has been a consistent donor to Blagojevich, giving thousands of dollars to his campaign in recent years. Burris donated $1,000 to the Friends of Blagojevich fund in 2005, $1,500 in 2007 and, $1,000 in June 2008, according to Illinois campaign finance data.
On a national level, Burris has given to Barack Obama and Joe Biden, as well as several members of the Illinois congressional delegation, including Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Associated Press writers Anne Flaherty, Laurie Kellman and Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report from Washington.