WASHINGTON — Opportunism comes in many forms in Illinois politics. Unfortunately for the reputation of my home state, the nation is learning about all of them.
Thanks to the court-approved wiretaps released last month, we heard evidence that Gov. Rod Blagojevich saw the election of Barack Obama as an opportunity to extract a juicy payment for himself — cash or a cushy job — in return for the appointment to Obama’s Senate seat.
In the last few weeks, we’ve learned that the Democratic leaders of the Illinois Legislature saw the embarrassment of the governor (a man they already despised) as an opportunity to guarantee that Obama’s seat would remain Democratic. The Democrats rejected legislation to require a special election, and instead are trying to remove Blagojevich by impeachment and give the appointing power to the lieutenant governor.
And then Tuesday, we learned that Roland Burris, a guy who has been hanging around in Illinois politics for decades, saw in all of this an opportunity to vault himself into the Senate — no matter what Obama and every other Democrat from Springfield to Washington thought.
Everyone, including Obama, has been exceedingly polite in their public comments about Burris. I have known him for years and I like him. But I have never been confused about the level of his talent. He was elected as far back as 1978 as state comptroller and stayed in that low-visibility office for 12 years before moving up to attorney general in 1990.
When he tried to climb higher, he found the competition too tough. He lost a Senate race to Paul Simon, tried three times for the nomination for governor without success, and ran for mayor of Chicago with the same result. He couldn’t get past the Democratic primary in any of those contests.
Burris is, in short, typical of a lot of politicians in both parties who find a comfortable lodging for years in down-ballot offices but never make the cut for the major prizes. He was distinctive in Illinois mainly for breaking the color barrier in statewide office, thanks to his downstate birth and friendships and his pleasant, accommodating personality.
It was no accident that, after Obama was elected, Burris’ name rarely figured in speculation for the Senate seat. At 71, decades after his last successful election, his political career seemed over. But not in his mind. Burris held a news conference putting himself forward as a possible successor to Obama, but he never figured as a rival to the statewide officials and House members interested in the seat.
So it must have been a delightful surprise and a large-size thrill for Burris when the embattled governor phoned on Sunday to say he was prepared to make Burris the new senator.
Blagojevich had already been turned down by Rep. Danny Davis, a black Chicago congressman, who said any appointee from the governor would be too tainted to serve. But Burris had no such qualms.
“I have nothing to do with the governor and his problems,” Burris declared of the corruption charges U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has lodged against Blagojevich and his former chief of staff. “You’ve got to separate the appointee from the appointer.”
But that bit of sophistry did not persuade Obama, other Illinois Democrats or Senate leaders, all of whom criticized Blagojevich for making the appointment and Burris for accepting it. Obama repeated his call for Blagojevich to step down and allow a senator to be named “free of taint and controversy.”
The final bit of opportunism was supplied by Rep. Bobby Rush, the South Side Chicago congressman who has earned a footnote in history as the only man so far to beat Barack Obama — when the young lawyer imprudently challenged the entrenched incumbent in a 2000 primary.
Called to the microphone by Burris, Rush immediately played the race card, praising Blagojevich for keeping a black man in Obama’s seat and saying that it would be imprudent for any senator to “deny one African-American for being seated in the U.S. Senate.”
The Illinois Democrats have really made a spectacle of themselves.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.