Gov. Rod Blagojevich thumbed his nose at political critics Tuesday, naming the first black candidate ever elected to statewide office in Illinois to serve out Barack Obama's term in the U.S. Senate and daring state and federal officials to block the move.
The embattled governor stunned political observers by picking 71-year-old Chicago Democrat Roland Burris, forcing the governor's critics into the awkward position of opposing the man who would become the nation's only black senator.
The surprise appointment gave the embattled governor a chance to, at least momentarily, flex his political muscle while offering up evidence that he's carrying out his duties.
Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on federal charges that include attempting to auction off Obama's seat for personal gain. But the defiant Chicago Democrat, who vehemently asserts his innocence, swiped back, saying state lawmakers failed to call a special election and left him with no choice but to fill the Senate vacancy to ensure the state has full representation.
"The law requires that the governor make an appointment of a United States senator in the absence of any other law that would have given the people of Illinois a chance to be able to elect the successor to the United States Senate," Blagojevich said. "And when the legislature didn't act on the legislation they said they were considering, which I supported, which would have given the people the right to be able to elect the next senator, failing that, then it's the governor's responsibility to fill the vacancy."
Burris denied any connection to the charges against Blagojevich, and critics from Obama on down were careful to speak respectfully of him while lambasting his appointment.
"I am not tainted by this appointment," Burris said during an interview on CNN. "I have done no wrong and they're going to deny the people of Illinois a qualified person."
Burris made history with his 1978 state comptroller victory and was re-elected to the financial post twice, then won the 1990 state attorney general race. He has been out of office since 1995, working as a lobbyist, interspersed with failed bids for governor and Chicago mayor. Among his clients was the American Indian tribe that failed to get the governor's OK for a Hoffman Estates casino.
A check of state campaign finance reports finds Burris donated almost $20,300 to Blagojevich's campaign since 2002, either personally or through law firms.
Lawmakers partly brought the situation upon themselves, hustling back to Springfield within days of the governor's arrest with a goal of stripping the governor of the appointment power and turning it over to voters via a special election. Once inside the Capitol, the Democrats who control the General Assembly balked at the possible multimillion-dollar price tag of a special election and the chance a Republican could win the seat.
The special election option faded without a vote and lawmakers instead launched an impeachment investigation that's now on hold awaiting a federal judge's decision on whether lawmakers will get copies of wiretap tapes. The request goes before the judge next week.
On Tuesday, Republicans chastised Democrats for missing the opportunity to stop the governor.
"We should have never allowed the situation to get to this point," said House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego. Cross said when he first heard word the governor was going ahead with an appointment he thought it was "some sick, wacky rumor on the Internet."
But a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, said there are no regrets and that the special election was too costly and wouldn't have produced a new senator until the summer.
Steve Brown, Madigan's spokesman, declined further comment on Tuesday's events.
Elsewhere, state and federal officials renewed their promises to block the governor's Senate appointment.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White remained steadfast, saying he won't sign off on the appointment. And U.S. Senate leadership repeated its threat not to seat any Blagojevich appointee.
"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," U.S. Sens. Harry Reid, Dick Durbin and others said in a joint statement.
President-elect Obama backed his former Senate colleagues and again called on Blagojevich to quit.
"Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat," Obama said in a statement. "I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it."
• Daily Herald staff writer Rob Olmstead contributed to this report.