Burris pick contrary to Obama message, some say

Published: 1/6/2009 12:01 AM | Updated: 1/6/2009 7:11 AM

SPRINGFIELD - When Gov. Rod Blagojevich put out the "U.S. senator wanted" sign following Barack Obama's White House win, he said he wanted someone who'd carry out the president-elect's agenda built around hope and change.

Blagojevich's final pick was Roland Burris, a trailblazing black politician when he won his first statewide race more than 30 years ago.

But Burris, who arrived in Washington Monday to try to lay claim to a Obama's Senate seat today, has been out of political office nearly 14 years. Unable to win his way back in, he's cashed in his political clout to lobby for cigarette companies, a Native American tribe looking to put a mega casino in the suburbs and mortgage brokers, among others.

Burris has donated thousands of dollars to Blagojevich in recent years and his clients have won millions of dollars in state business, according to state records.

Aside from the ongoing questions of whether Burris should be seated, some argue the veteran politician is an odd choice to replace Obama, whose campaign swore off lobbyists and chastised their influence on government.

"Lobbyists were represented as the anti-change agent, and Roland Burris, for the last decade of his public life, has been a lobbyist," said Jay Stewart, director of the watchdog Better Government Association. "He has tried elected office and voters have decided otherwise."

In the midst of all the political hoopla surrounding the Burris pick, his modern-day credentials had largely escaped scrutiny and raise the question of exactly why Blagojevich thinks Burris is best to carry on in Obama's place.

"It's a great question. I don't think anyone has taken the Burris appointment seriously enough to engage that question," said David Morrison, assistant director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Blagojevich's staff couldn't answer it, pointing first to Burris' statewide victories from 1978 to 1990 but not addressing the more recent lobbyist role.

"As for the other qualifications, I can't answer because I wasn't part of the selection process," said spokesman Lucio Guerrero.

Asked who was, Guerrero said, "I don't know. He never told me."

A spokeswoman for Burris didn't return a phone call seeking comment. An e-mail sent to a spokesman also was not returned.

Burris arrived in Washington on Monday planning to seek admittance to the U.S. Senate today for swearing-in ceremonies.

Senate Democratic leaders have said Burris will not be allowed in because his appointment is not official.

Burris said Monday he does not plan to create a spectacle if denied entry. He has a meeting with the Democratic leadership on Wednesday.

Back in Illinois, his selection by a governor arrested last month for allegedly trying to sell the Senate appointment for personal gain, has created a media, racial and political firestorm.

Black leaders have dared Democrats not to seat what would be the only black senator in the 100-member chamber. At the same time, state lawmakers have sped up their impeachment proceedings of Blagojevich.

State Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat, said she still has questions about where Burris stands on today's issues.

"I'm glad you're taking race out of it," Flowers, who is black, said in a telephone interview Monday. "Let me say, quite frankly I would have chosen someone else."

But state Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat first picked to serve out the remainder of Obama's state Senate seat, said it's unfair to use Obama as the benchmark for picking successors.

"Is Roland Burris Barack Obama? No, he's not. Who is?" said Raoul, "Do I think Roland is qualified? Yeah. In terms of an objective review of credentials and experiences, he's arguably one of the most qualified."

Suburban lawmakers, however, said there are better choices to follow in Obama's footsteps.

Hinsdale Republican state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who appeared in a campaign commercial supporting Obama early in his presidential run, said Burris is no agent of change.

"Personally, Mr. Burris is a fine man," Dillard said. "But there is no change as espoused by the Barack Obama presidential campaign in appointing a lobbyist who represents tobacco companies, gambling institutions and who - with all due respect - is in his 70s."