Senate fight deflects attention from Ill. governor

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Roland Burris is battling for a U.S. Senate seat in court and through the media, briefly shifting the spotlight away from the man who picked him for the job, embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Roland Burris is battling for a U.S. Senate seat in court and through the media, briefly shifting the spotlight away from the man who picked him for the job, embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Burris filed a motion with the Illinois Supreme Court seeking to force Secretary of State Jesse White to certify Blagojevich’s appointment of Burris to the seat. Getting White’s signature on the document would make it easier for Burris to argue that Senate leaders must accept him. Burris also made his case in interview after interview Wednesday, arguing that his appointment shouldn’t be tainted by the corruption scandal that has engulfed Blagojevich. The former Illinois attorney general said he will show up in Washington next week when new senators are sworn in, but he won’t create a scene if Senate leaders turn him away. "That is not my style. I am not seeking to be confrontational," the 71-year-old Burris told The Associated Press. Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, asked a judge for another three months to indict Blagojevich, saying they have "thousands" of intercepted phone calls and "multiple" people to assess. A 90-day extension would give prosecutors until April 7. In Washington, Senate Democratic officials spent New Year’s Eve reviewing procedures that haven’t been used in decades in anticipation of Burris’ arrival on Tuesday. They also were searching for a way to defuse the dispute, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Generally, they expected to make a motion to refer Burris’ credentials to the Rules Committee for a review, then to deny Burris floor privileges until the investigation is completed. That could take months, by which time Blagojevich may no longer be governor, these officials said. Burris would not be granted a paycheck or office space in the meantime, the officials said. Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on charges that he tried to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat for money or a high-paying job and other allegations. That triggered calls for his resignation and the beginning of impeachment proceedings in the Illinois Legislature. U.S. Senate leaders said they would refuse to seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich. But Blagojevich went forward with an appointment anyway, announcing Burris as his pick Tuesday. Four days after Blagojevich was arrested, even Burris called the charges "appalling" and "reprehensible." He applauded an effort by the attorney general to have the courts remove Blagojevich, saying the governor could no longer do his job. Burris said Wednesday that he stands by those statements. But he also said that Blagojevich can continue performing his duties, such as appointing a new senator, and he refused to take a position on whether the governor should resign. Burris said friends — he would not identify them — are studying his legal options. He insisted that being named to the Senate by Blagojevich does not mean he is tainted by the governor’s scandal. "I am not associated with him. The governor made an appointment of me to be the senator," Burris said. "He’s carrying out his constitutional and statutory duties. That is not being ‘associated’ with him." But White, the secretary of state, officially refused to certify Burris’ appointment Wednesday. Normally, he would sign off on a gubernatorial appointment as a matter of routine. Senate rules say Burris can’t be seated unless the secretary of state certifies Blagojevich’s action, so Burris is asking the Illinois high court to force White to sign. "His failure to do so may cast doubt in the minds of the public as to the legitimacy of Mr. Burris’ appointment," the motion says. White spokesman Dave Druker said they had not reviewed the court filing but believed the office has acted within its authority. Blagojevich’s appointment of a Black politician could be seen as a move to win over Black lawmakers considering his impeachment and perhaps even jurors in his corruption case. Long before his Dec. 9 arrest, the Chicago Democrat had made a habit of courting the Black community, both with broad policies and small gestures. His closest ally in Springfield was Emil Jones, the powerful Black leader of the Illinois Senate. The governor fought hard to improve education and health care, two issues at the top of the agenda for many Black voters. He also handed out grants to Black institutions, such as the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church when it burned. And he publicly turned to Black ministers during times of trouble and refused to dump a high-ranking Nation of Islam official from a state anti-discrimination panel. State Sen. Kwame Raoul said Black lawmakers won’t be swayed by Burris’ appointment. "We’re just not cheap," said Raoul, a Democrat. "There’s no empathy for him because he’s done a good thing," agreed Sen. Donne Trotter, a Black Democrat from Chicago. A Chicago Tribune poll in October, before Blagojevich was arrested, showed his support among Black voters slipping — from 70 percent to 32 percent. The impact of the appointment on Blacks who might wind up sitting on a jury is probably nil, said Daniel Coyne, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Blagojevich’s predecessor, former GOP Gov. George Ryan, cleared death row before he left office in 2003 but still ended up in prison after he was convicted in a federal corruption trial. "Any time you start trying to do things in a way that you think would make a jury more favorable to you down the road, it really is nothing but speculation," Coyne said. Burris would not speculate on whether Blagojevich was currying favor with Blacks by naming an African-American to replace Obama, and he didn’t think the seat must be filled by another Black lawmaker. "I’m not in any way seeking to play the race card in this situation," Burris said. "Under no circumstances." Associated Press writers David Mercer in Champaign, Christopher Wills in Springfield and Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this report. ______ Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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