Sam Smith

The Illinois Senate appointment is a truly strange story. Or perhaps not. At the very moment when liberals are talking so smugly about moving into a post racial society, the Senate Democrats have voted not to admit a black man because they are embarrassed by the white guy who appointed him. Roland Burris would be the only black member of the Senate. If blacks were proportionally represented, there would be 13 of them.

The law is admittedly marginally debatable, but precisely because it is so, the wisest course would be to defer to the jurisdiction sending the legislator to Washington. Once the Senate and the House start making such choices, they become hardly distinguishable from a private club.

Forty years ago, this issue came up in Congress and, ironically, it also involved a black man, Adam Clayton Powell. Whatever Powell’s personal failings, he would join another far less then perfect politician, Lyndon Johnson, in getting more good legislation passed in less time than anyone else in American history. But that didn’t matter to the goo-goos who preferred the appropriate to the useful.

In a 1967 piece, “Keep the Seat, Baby,” I argued:

|||| The punishment proposed for Mr. Powell is the loss of his congressional seat. A strong case can be made against such punishment on constitutional and other legal grounds. Furthermore, there is a good defense based on precedent.

As recently as 1956, a member of the House was convicted of income tax evasion, sentenced to jail and fined $10,000. Not only did the offending gentleman subsequently regain his seat, but his seniority as well. Senator Dodd has not been made to stand aside while more serious charges against him are examined. Nor were Mississippi’s GOP congressmen unseated last session despite massive evidence of the disenfranchisement of Negroes in their districts. Congress has repeatedly declined to act in cases involving far more evil than that alleged in the instance of Mr. Powell. Even Senator [Joseph] McCarthy got off with censure.

Should the charges lodged against the former chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee be pressed with equal vigor against all other deserving legislators in the land, it would become difficult to raise a quorum in either house of Congress or for our state legislatures to exist at all. . .

There are too many fingerprints on the apple to justify the current display of public sanctimony in the case of Adam Powell. And if all we are going to get in return for Powell’s riddance is more mealy-mouthed, psychologically blanched Negroes who sit respectfully at the back of party caucuses, then by all means let’s save Adam. For in the long run, we must judge the man’s politics more important than his morals.||||

A couple of years later the Supreme Court agreed with my position if not my arguments, finding, according to the New York Times, that “the House could not bar Mr. Powell, who had been accused of financial impropriety, if he met the constitutionally determined qualifications for age, citizenship and residency.

The Roland Burris case is far simpler. Not only is Blagojevich still the governor of Illinois and thus legally entitled to name a successor, to condemn his choice is an act of hypocritical excess that libels Burris by inference.

It is worth noting, for example, that Burris

– was the first black national bank examiner for the Office of the Comproller of the Currency.

– was National Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer for Operation PUSH

– was elected to the office of Comptroller of Illinois. He was the first African American to be elected to a statewide office in the state of Illinois. Burris was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1984, losing to Paul Simon who went on to defeat incumbent Senator Charles Percy.

– was the second African American elected to the office of Attorney General in the United States.

– ran for mayor of Chicago, losing to incumbent Richard M. Daley. In 1998 and 2002

– was Vice-Chairman, Democratic National Committee Chairman

– was named by Southern Illinois University one of its Ten Most Distinguished Alumni

Instead of some modicum of decency, he is being dissed by the incompetent and useless Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, joined by the other members of the Senate Democratic caucus, using a weak and narrow legal argument to slap a black politician accused of nothing worse but being appointed by the wrong man. The motivations behind this move – although couched as a moral judgment – are in fact nothing more than sucking up to public outrage over Blagojevich and trying to rig the seat their way. If the Democrats really want a post racial society, showing a little respect of the most ordinary variety would be a good place to start.


  1. Sam,What I love is — that all this is coming from the same leadership that ultimately embraced the Republican campaigner, Joe Lieberman, back into the fold.Roland Burris seems more than qualified to fill this senate seat.Blagojevich poked the Senate Democrats in the eye — and they need to get over themselves. Is it more important to try to get the country back on track, confirm some cabinet picks — or fight over whether or not Roland Burris belongs in the Senate?It will be interesting to see what choice Obama and Reid make.

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