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Senate appointment creates rift among black leaders
By Robert McCoppin and John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/30/2008 8:31 PM | Updated: 12/30/2008 8:33 PM

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Gov. Rod Blagojevich's appointment of Roland Burris to the U.S. Senate creates a split among Illinois' top black officials.

The appointment pits the state's top elected official, Secretary of State Jesse White, against its one-time highest black office holder, former Attorney General Roland Burris.

Further complicating the matter, the appointment involves the former seat of Barack Obama, the first African-American to be elected president. Both Obama and White were careful to praise Burris in opposing his selection by Blagojevich, who's accused of earlier trying to sell the seat for personal gain.

White vowed not to authorize Burris' appointment by Blagojevich, but tried to take the focus off Burris. The secretary of state's role is to forward the appointment to the Senate.

"Although I have respect for former Attorney General Roland Burris," White said in a statement, "because of the current cloud of controversy surrounding the governor, I cannot accept the document."

Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, joined Blagojevich and Burris at the podium after the announcement and raised the issue of race, saying he did not think the Senate would want to oppose seating the lone black senator.

"I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee," Rush said, "as you try to castigate the appointor."

He also questioned White's legal authority to block the appointment and issued a veiled political threat to White, saying, "He should be concerned about how the people of Illinois will react."

White and Burris are political contemporaries. Burris, 71, was the first black candidate elected statewide when he won the 1978 comptroller's race. He served three terms and was then elected state attorney general, serving from 1991-'95.

White, 73, became the state's first African-American secretary of state in 1998 and has twice been re-elected, becoming one of Illinois' top vote-getters. He created the Jesse White Tumbling Team.

State Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat who supports Burris' selection, said given the circumstances, White has to reconsider his opposition.

"Certainly I think there will be some pressure for him to rethink what he first said," Trotter said.

Other prominent black candidates fell by the wayside. Obama aide Valerie Jarrett withdrew from consideration and joined Obama's cabinet; Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was named in federal wiretaps as someone Blagojevich approached about getting campaign donations from; and Rep. Danny Davis said he was asked but declined.

•Rob Olmstead contributed to this report.