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Open Letter

Please let me make a point on the unfolding debacle formerly known as Roland Burris, despite the fact that I have no recent ancestors from Africa. (I considered not writing this at all, but then I picked up the paper and found Eric Holder was already calling me a coward.)

The single most reliable strategy to ensure that President Obama's former Senate seat will ultimately go to a white politician is to keep Roland Burris in it right now.

I hear a portion of your community still supports Burris, and some believe the current cry for Burris's removal is a plot to send the Senate seat into white hands. Generally I don't discourage people from considering nefarious motives for anything Illinois politicians do. It's a healthy thing, overall. Illinoisans learn this at a young age by cutting our teeth on big corruption headlines. Chicagoans learn it in the womb by hearing radio and TV news reports in utero - kind of like playing Mozart tapes to a pregnant woman's tummy, except this raises our political IQs.

But in this case, I don't think nefarious motives are likely. Illinois Democrats just want to keep the Senate seat Democratic. (True, this in itself is nefarious.) They also care about keeping Illinois state offices like governor Democratic, which will be much easier with a strong U.S. Senate candidate heading the ticket next time around. Remember, Illinois voters statewide have a definite tendency to elect Republican governors - a tendency likely strengthened after getting a load of Rod Blagojevich.

No doubt white Democratic power brokers consider some individual black politicians unable to win state office. They won't want to back literally any black politician for this Senate seat; they'll want one they can rely on to appeal to voters statewide. That's not Roland Burris. It probably never was, and sure isn't any more. That doesn't mean white Democrats want to decrease black political representation.

But let's say I'm totally wrong. Doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that Roland Burris doesn't have a chance of winning his Senate seat honestly in the next election, coming swiftly in 2010. A recent Tribune poll showed Burris has a favorable impression among only 34 percent of Illinois voters.

Rev. Willie Barrow recently said of Burris, "We put him in, and we're going to keep him in." Like Barrow, many black voters will support Burris merely because he is black. White voters will not. White voters will want other reasons to vote for Burris. And voters statewide have already turned down Burris for various offices, including the U.S. Senate, four times in the past 14 years. It's been almost 20 years since Burris won an election - any election.

Many of those same voters were already angry that Burris didn't have the personal integrity, like U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who happens to be African American, to turn down an appointment from a governor about to be indicted for attempting to sell that very appointment. Now they find Burris practically created a Facebook community of Blagojevich insiders while trying to get the governor to name him to the Senate, and Burris wasn't deterred when the governor's brother asked him for money. Also, Burris failed to tell anyone about it. Even while under oath, in front of the Illinois House impeachment panel. These are facts that won't change no matter how many investigations Burris welcomes, and whether he committed perjury.

This is simply not going to fly when it takes actual ballots to keep Burris in the Senate. If Burris manages to hang on to his seat for now, he's shown us that his unbridled ego will goad him into running for re-election. That campaign really begins this year, what with fund-raising and circulating petitions - not nearly enough time for a majority of voters to repress bad memories and punch a hole next to Burris's name.

Democrats would secretly try to lure Burris away from the Senate campaign with offers of cushy jobs elsewhere, but it would be foolish to count on Burris giving up the public power he so clearly relishes. This is a guy who has shown time and again that he just doesn't know when to quit. Also, it may be tough to find someone willing to hire Burris at this point.

So chances are good that Burris - if he survives the brouhaha - will try to keep the seat. Perhaps another black candidate will run against him in the Democratic primary. This could easily split the black vote enough to allow a white politician to win the primary. We can safely assume the Republicans won't resurrect Alan Keyes, so the Republican candidate will be white. Inevitable result: a white senator replaces Burris.

Or, let's say that despite Burris's obvious weakness, no viable Democrat will challenge a sitting Senator in the primary. That's quite possible as well. Again, the Republicans will not resurrect Alan Keyes. Inevitable result: a white senator replaces Burris.

Burris is a lose-lose proposition. If you want an African-American senator, surely you want an African-American senator for more than the remainder of President Obama's old Senate term, a scant two years.

Personally, I don't believe the seat 'belongs" to an African American any more than Hillary Clinton's old seat "belonged" to a woman. I think the voters in both states voted for individuals, not categories. That said, given the disgraceful underrepresentation of all minorities and women in the U.S. Senate, I don't think there was anything wrong with appointing a qualified woman to Clinton's seat, and I'd love to see a qualified African American with policy views similar to Obama in his old seat.

And there are many talented such candidates to choose from. Don't settle for Roland Burris. If he thinks he can count on the African-American community to support him no matter what, he'll never leave until he's voted out of office. And that's only a matter of time. Burris may as well get out a chisel and change his epitaph from "TRAIL BLAZER" to "You can run (for the Senate), but you can't hide."

Sincerely,

Cate Plys

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Open Letter is open to letters.

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See who else Cate has written to - from Lin Brehmer and The Person Who Let Their Dog Defecate Near The Southeast Corner Of 58th And Kimbark to Fellow Parents Planning Birthday Parties and Macy's - in the Open Letter archive.



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Posted on February 24, 2009


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