Blagojevich attempts to fill vacant Obama seat

By Deanna Bellandi

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White says he’ll reject any paperwork that Gov. Rod Blagojevich files to name a new U.S. senator.

A defiant Blagojevich on Tuesday appointed a former state attorney general to Barack Obama’s former Senate seat, a suprise move that put his opponents in the uncomfortable position of trying to block a veteran political trailblazer from becoming the Senate’s only black member.

The secretary of state keeps state records and certifies official actions.

But White says he won’t certify anything Blagojevich does to fill the Senate seat once held by President-elect Barack Obama.

White issued a statement today saying he can’t accept any paperwork from Blagojevich on the Senate seat “because of the current cloud of controversy surrounding the governor.”

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    It isn’t clear if that administrative roadblock would keep the appointment from taking place.

    Senate leaders have said they won’t seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich, who was arrested on federal corruption charges this month.

    Blagojevich’s appointment of Roland Burris injected race into the drama surrounding the embattled governor, who sought to make the issue more about the man he selected rather than the seat he’s accused of trying to sell.

    “Please don’t allow the allegations against me to taint a good an honest man,” the governor said, turning to the smiling 71-year-old standing by his side.

    Burris said he discussed the appointment with Blagojevich Sunday night. “I was asked if he would appoint me, would I accept, and the answer is yes,” Burris said.

    Burris said he has no connection to the charges against Blagojevich, who was arrested earlier this month on charges that he tried to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder.

    Burris was the first African-American elected to major statewide office in Illinois. He served as comptroller and ran for governor three times – the last time losing to Blagojevich.

    The Democratic governor’s announcement may be an empty gesture. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who must certify the appointment, said Tuesday he will not do so. And Senate leaders reiterated that they would not accept anyone appointed by Blagojevich.

    In a statement Tuesday, Senate Democrats maintained that Blagojevich should not make the appointment because doing so would be unfair to Burris and to the people of Illinois.

    “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,” the statement said.

    “Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic caucus.”

    Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said Blagojevich’s decision to appoint Burris is an “insult to the people of Illinois.”

    “We believe in clean government, and Rod Blagojevich has unclean hands,” Quinn said.

    But Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, dared Senate leaders in Washington to block Burris’ appointment, pointing out that Burris would be the only black man in a chamber populated overwhelmingly by white senators.

    Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 after federal prosecutors allegedly recorded conversations in which he discussed appointing someone Obama favored in exchange for a position in the new president’s Cabinet or naming someone favored by a union if he got a high-level union job.

    The governor has faced a flood of calls for his resignation, and the Illinois House has begun impeachment proceedings. He maintains his innocence, and has vowed to stay in office.

    Blagojevich’s own lawyer said recently that there would be no point in the governor naming someone to the Senate because leaders there would reject his appointment.

    Democratic state Rep. Mary Flowers, a member of the impeachment committee, said Burris is qualified to sit in the Senate, but she is not swayed in her decision concerning impeachment.

    “One has nothing to do with the other,” Flowers said.

    White, who handles the state’s paperwork, said he would not formally certify any appointment made by Blagojevich “because of the current cloud of controversy surround the governor.”

    It’s not clear whether White’s refusal would be enough to prevent a Blagojevich appointment from taking effect.

    Burris is a native of Centralia in southern Illinois who graduated from Southern Illinois University before earning his law degree from Howard University.

    He served as Illinois’ comptroller from 1979 to 1991 and as the state’s attorney general from 1991 to 1995. He also served as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1985 to 1989.

    More recently, however, Burris has had a string of political disappointments.

    He lost campaigns for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1994, 1998 and 2002 – the last time losing to Blagojevich. In 1995, he was badly beaten when challenging Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in the primary.

    Before taking public office, Burris worked in banking and served as national executive director and chief operating officer for Operation PUSH, the Chicago-based civil rights organization.

    He failed in his first brush with politics – a 1968 run for the Illinois House. But five years later, his political service got him appointed as an aide to Gov. Dan Walker.

    Burris has been a consistent donor to Blagojevich, giving thousands of dollars to his campaign in recent years. Burris donated $1,000 to the Friends of Blagojevich fund in 2005, $1,500 in 2007 and $1,000 in June 2008, according to Illinois campaign finance data.

    On a national level, Burris has given to Barack Obama and Joe Biden, as well as several members of the Illinois congressional delegation, including Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

    Associated Press writers Anne Flaherty, Laurie Kellman and Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report