Blacks rallying to defense of embattled Illinois Sen. Burris
CHICAGO — Lines are being drawn over whether embattled U.S. Sen. Roland Burris should resign, as the black community grows ever more vocal in his defense — and its desire to keep the seat held by the nation’s only black senator.
Burris, perhaps emboldened by his emerging support, is digging in his heels, despite calls from Illinois politicians, newspapers and even the 130-year-old Union League Club of Chicago to step down over whether he was truthful about his appointment.
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis said last Friday that many in the black community don’t believe Burris should resign, in part because the person who appointed him — now-ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich — hasn’t been convicted of a crime.
“I would say … there is overwhelming support for Roland Burris in the black community,” said Davis, who turned down an offer from Blagojevich for the appointment to President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat.
Burris accepted the appointment three weeks after the governor was arrested for trying to sell it. Burris has said he did nothing wrong. But he repeatedly has changed his story, recently revealing he talked to several Blagojevich advisers about the seat and tried, unsuccessfully, to raise money for the Democrat, who was impeached and driven from office earlier this year.
Now, the Sangamon County prosecutor is looking into possible perjury charges, and the U.S. Senate ethics committee has launched a preliminary investigation.
But last Friday — the day after Chicago’s black aldermen came to his defense — a group of lawyers did the same, saying Burris did not lie to the state House impeachment panel.
Stephen Stern, a civil rights lawyer and former president of the Cook County Bar Association, called Burris a “man of outstanding integrity, a great public servant and someone who we hold up as a role model.”
He said the group reviewed transcripts of the House hearings and the affidavits submitted by Burris, “and we have come to the conclusion that there is no basis that we can see for bringing … charges of perjury against Roland Burris.”
But whether or not Burris did anything wrong, he can no longer be an effective leader, said Chris Robling, a member of the Union League Club of Chicago’s public affairs committee.
“These are extraordinary times,” with the economic recession and war, “and the people of the state of Illinois deserve the full-time attention of whoever the senator is going to be,” said Robling, adding that the club also called for Blagojevich’s resignation in December.
But there is almost no chance that Burris will resign — and a huge desire among the black community to see him keep the seat, political observers said.
“I think he’s going to wait them out,” said Laura Washington, a politics professor at DePaul University and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. “There are too many other more important things in front of the U.S. Senate for them to spend lot political energy on this.
“I think Burris fatigue is settling in, big time.”
Burris’ new media consultant, Delmarie Cobb, even said last week that the black community should try to rehabilitate Burris’ image and get him elected next year to a six-year term.
But Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who has advised Burris to resign, suggested they find another candidate.
“The two biggest vote-getters in our history [are] Secretary of State Jesse White and Barack Obama, so our state is certainly open to qualified African American candidates,” Durbin said. “But I don’t believe that Roland Burris can successfully run for this seat.”
Burris supporters, however, say nobody should count him out.
The Rev. Stephen Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America, met with Burris Sunday to reaffirm the group’s support and determine how it can help him explain his actions to the public.
“We believe him,” said Thurston. “We want to help him move beyond this distraction so he can represent the people of Illinois in a critical time in American history.”
Associated Press Writer Don Babwin in Chicago contributed to this report.