The conflict over Barack Obama’s former Senate seat heated up this week when Roland Burris was turned away by Capitol Hill leaders. The drama, sparked by embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s unexpected appointment of Burris last week, has raised a variety of questions–about race and identity politics, about voter disenfranchisement, and about the pervasive corruption that permeates our state and national politics.

Recently, a group of Chicago church leaders came out in support of Burris, adding a religious angle to the saga. In an attempt to sift through the various issues at hand, UrbanFaith offers two perspectives from UrbanFaith editor Ed Gilbreath and Urban Ministries, Inc. director of editorial Dr. Rosa Sailes. (The opinions expressed here do not represent the views of UrbanFaith’s parent company, Urban Ministries, Inc., which takes no position on the matter.)

Ed Says: Blago Is Playing the Race Card

Ah, here we are again talking Illinois politics. Is there currently a crazier state in the nation? Maybe Minnesota comes close, and Alaska certainly had its 15 minutes recently, but when it comes to bizarre political twists and turns, Illinois is hard to beat these days.

After Governor Rod Blagojevich’s arrest and political downfall, I thought the guy would keep a low profile and not stir up anymore trouble. Alas, Blago’s ego wouldn’t allow him to keep still. And so, last week he goes and names Roland Burris, a veteran African American politician, to fill Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. You know the rest.

Now, this week we have the fiasco of Mr. Burris going to Washington for the swearing-in ceremony and being turned away. We’ve got black politicians and church leaders in Illinois declaring that Burris has a legal right to the seat and should be allowed to fill the vacancy because there are currently no African Americans in the Senate. We’ve got President-elect Obama, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, Senator Harry Reid, and an assortment of other folks saying Burris should not be allowed to join the Senate because of the cloud of corruption hanging over Blagojevich’s governorship. And on and on it goes.

Though it now looks like the Senate will eventually relent and let Burris in, there was much damage done on the way to this apparent resolution.

What’s really sad is the way Blagojevich is brazenly playing the race card in this situation to apparently distract attention from his own sorry plight and curry favor with African Americans, who may, to his mind, represent his last source of support. And what’s even sadder is the way some African American leaders, both from the political and church arenas, have played along with Blago’s desperate ploy.

Looking especially bad in this whole mess is Roland Burris, who once seemed like a wise and respectable public servant. Why on earth would he go along with Blagojevich’s plan, knowing that it would lead to the very debacle we’re seeing right now in Springfield and Washington?

Ironically, the last power play for this particular Senate seat also involved a brazen dealing of the race card. Remember back in 2004 when Illinois Republicans recruited Alan Keyes, an outspoken African American conservative from Maryland, to come to the Land of Lincoln and battle Barack Obama for that U.S. Senate seat? I thought that was the most surreal display of racial politics I’d ever see—until now.

Though Blagojevich does still have the legal right to appoint someone to the vacant Senate seat, I was hoping that no one would stoop to play his twisted game. Unfortunately, Mr. Burris, a genuinely good man, couldn’t resist the opportunity to add “Senator” to his resume before retirement. I’m sure he’ll serve the citizens of Illinois well, but it’s unfortunate he chose to take the job this way.


Rosa Says: Seat Burris, Stop Disenfranchising Voters

On first view, the Roland Burris senatorial seat effort seems to be a fiasco. An appointment from a governor awaiting impeachment or jail – whichever comes first – is painting Burris with the brush of corruption that marks Illinois—and apparently U.S.—politics. While this bizarre and pathetic situation is distracting, I think it is time to consider the larger social justice issue.

The battle Roland Burris is fighting could be heralded as self-centered and ambitious except for one thing: the law. If state lawmakers and government officials have not removed the governor then he has the right to do business for the state. (If he’s so dangerous, shouldn’t someone be making a little more haste to remove him?) Politicians have waved their fists and murmured with fury from the sidelines on this one. The fact remains that the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, is on the brink of removal but manages at every turn to find a new rope from which to hang his constituents out to dry. I think it’s about time that we dodge his tricks and face the issue at hand.

The people of Illinois have the right to have two senators in Congress. Removing Blagojevich will not be an overnight affair. Even if impeachment charges come today, he will remain in office until a trial removes him. Despite his indictment, we are not hearing of a hasty trial for his alleged crimes. How long should the citizens of Illinois be held hostage by this man?

Burris has been legally named. The U.S. Senate, for all its positioning, does not have the right to tell a state who can represent it. The buck is being passed as Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White says he won’t sign Burris’ paperwork, which he claims does not require his signature anyway. The Senate leadership wants to set conditions on who can run from Illinois in 2010. Some people are even claiming that a senatorial appointment by the Lieutenant Governor, when and if he gets to be the governor, should be retroactive!

When we find an injustice, should we turn our heads or should we advocate for the voice of the people? What is being brought to light by Burris’ actions are the shady dealings of politicians on the state, local, and national levels. Some of the clergy in Chicago have started to rally for Burris. Not just because he is a good man and a faithful church worker in his own community, but because they recognize that the electorate is being manipulated in the midst of this turmoil.

It is likely that this fight will make it to the courts—perhaps to the Supreme Court—and if it does, it will be a victory for the citizens of Illinois and the country. Perhaps politicians will think twice before they next decide to disenfranchise voters. From hanging chads, to the decision by the Democratic National Convention to discount votes in Florida and Michigan during the primaries, to telling Illinois citizens to wait months before they have their ample allotment of voices in Washington, politicians have forgotten that people do count.

It’s time for change and I see Roland Burris’ actions as demanding that change. Upfront and in full view, Burris is taking a stance that can only benefit the citizenry. Perhaps it will take the history books some time to recognize this challenge as a defining moment in U.S. politics, but I for one say with the prophet Amos, “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you.”

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