Maybe Blagojevich Does Owe Burris Something

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The media has been looking for evidence that Roland Burris’ appointment to the United States Senate is payback for something Burris once did for Governor Rod Blagojevich. Ben Joravsky, publishing over at TNR, may have put his finger on it. Without Burris, Balgo would have never made it out of the Democratic primary in the 2002 race for Illinois governor:

Hard as it is to believe now that he’s an international sensation, Blagojevich, then a relatively unknown congressman from Chicago’s northwest side, was not the front-runner in that race. His main opponent was Paul Vallas, the former head of Chicago’s Public Schools, who had built quite a reputation as an unpredictable and slightly autocratic reformer–just the type of take-no-prisoners bulldog who had the potential to clean out the swamp of Illinois politics.

Vallas strength was his popularity in the city’s black wards. During his six-year stint with the schools, he had assiduously courted the black community–the running joke was that he had attended more Saturday-morning meetings at Operation Push than Jesse Jackson. In contrast, Blago had no standing in the black community. There were few blacks in his district. More to the point, his father-in-law and political patron, Alderman Richard Mell, had vehemently opposed Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor–a fact that older black voters still have not forgotten. If Blagojevich and Vallas split the statewide white vote, it would be the black voters of Chicago who would put Vallas over the top.

And then Roland Burris jumped into the race. When the primary election was over, Blago had about 457,000 votes, Vallas 431,000, and Burris 363,000. But the real story was in the black precincts of city’s west and south sides, where Burris accumulated about 85 percent of the vote. In the aftermath it was clear, had Burris not run, Vallas would have won, and we would have been spared the spectacle of the Blagojevich circus, as entertaining as it’s been.

Of course, Blagojevich has a funny way of thanking the folks to whom he owes the most. Once in office he almost immediately cut off Alderman Mell, who has been steaming mad ever since. And now with this senatorial appointment, he has made Burris the butt of jokes across the nation, even if Burris, ever eager for higher office, doesn’t quite get it.


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