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Give Burris His Seat

The travails of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich have more to do with his crassness or the seeming lack of sophistication of his demand, than anything else. I mean, what’s the difference between Hillary Clinton’s demand that Barack Obama help retire her $45 million campaign debt and Blagojevich wanting payback for giving Obama the senator he wanted to replace him?

The list of politicians, their family members and friends, lobbyists and companies they represent, who benefit from “quid pro quo” or, “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours,” as well as “pay- to-play,” “vote buying” and “influence peddling” is long and grows longer every second. They don’t call money “the mother’s milk of politics” for nothing. And we all know more than a few politicians who claimed “they were in it to do good and ended up doing very well,” financially speaking. Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney come to mind, but there are scores more.

Yet our concern shouldn’t be over whether or not “to the victor belong the spoils” still holds sway. We should be more concerned over the erosion of due process and the presumption of innocence in American society.

It is not complex. Blagojevich has a criminal complaint against him. He has not been formally charged with a particular crime or crimes. No jury has been seated. No trial has taken place. No jury has convicted him and no judge has sentenced him. Until a jury decides differently, Blagojevich enjoys the presumption of innocence.

Being charged, arrested, having a bond hearing, going to trial and being freed or convicted is due process.The presumption of innocence and due process are basic human and civil rights. Those rights should be protected for everybody.

Blagojevich resigning or not carrying out the duties of his job could ring as an admission of guilt of sorts and thus violating  of his 5th Amendment rights. Doubtless there are many who would say that “pleading the 5th” is itself an admission of guilt. I say that not being compelled to testify against one’s self made sense when the Framers put it in place and it makes sense now.

Due process isn’t ‘a prosecutor accuses you so you’re guilty.’ If that were the case why have a criminal justice system at all? Or, why have trials?

One would think that those who are sworn to “uphold and defend the Constitution” – from the Illinois Legislature to Harry Reid and other members of the Senate, no matter the party, would promote rights and not play so much to cloakroom and pop politics and trial by media pundits. It ought to be troubling to state executives across the country that they too could be disempowered and impeached on accusation. It’s just as strange that legislators would not want to protect their own due process rights, thus leaving themselves open to being removed or asked to leave office based solely on allegation.

Blagojevich was well within his rights and duties to appoint Burris to fill Obama’s vacant seat.

Some accused Burris of being used by the Governor. Others have opined “he’s not ready for prime time.” A few more, such as Chicago reporter Lynn Sweet, have all but called Burris stupid. In an television interview she rambled on about Burris’ inability to operate his cell phone’s message service as a measure of his lack of intelligence. A friend of mine asked if I had heard about Burris’ museum to himself on the Southside of Chicago with an empty space on the wall for ‘future accomplishments.” My response was, ‘So did George Jefferson.’ ( For those familiar with the 70s sitcom Good Times, dry cleaner operator Jefferson opened a museum to himself with space left for future deeds. He even tried to charge his wife “Wezzie” the $1 admission (which he paid for her).

Burris is qualified to serve. To me, the only qualifications are age and residency. I also believe that Burris should not have to “agree not to run in 2010.” Who serves or continues to serve should be left up to the voters.

And after Burris is seated he should place his appointment documents on his museum wall if that’s what he wants to do. Everyday, I have to drive by a bronze statute of House Whip Jim Clyburn holding a golf club at the city driving range, funded by federal dollars. The statue sits close to a railroad track and on more than one occasion I’ve fantasize tying a rope to the statue and lassoing it to a southbound train.

Blagojevich comes out ahead with the Burris selection. By appointing Burris, blacks rally around both him and his pick. It’s also a swipe against Obama and his crew. They didn’t get who they wanted – which is why Obama supporters lead the name-calling against the Governor and Burris. More subtly and just as ironic, Blagojevich called out Obama on his serial betrayal in regards to the black political class while at the same time revealing Harry Reid’s hypocrisy on race.

Race and racism hung in the air around Obama’s former seat long before it was revealed that Reid didn’t back any of the blacks publicly interested in the seat. That public disclosure, although met with the predictable righteous indignation, is why Reid was hard-pressed to deny Burris entry into the Senate. As the controversy brewed I got an email from one of the former lawyers who represented Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who had offered his services to Burris for free. That’s to say, the Democratic Senators faced a potential Supreme Court challenge where even if they won they would lose.

As for Obama’s betrayal – or opportunism – throughout the 2008 campaign, Jesse Jackson Jr. regularly flogged his father in the interest of Obama. He was a team player and many assumed he would be high on Obama’s list. That wasn’t the case. The prosecutor’s transcripts and Jackson’s entreaties to Blagojevich bears that out.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing, name-calling and finger pointing in the Blagojevich affair. I got into an exchange on one of the social networks with supporters of Obama who used words such as “evil” and “vile” to describe Blagojevich. I offered that “evil” is a religious term and to my knowledge the governor had not been “charged “with a crime, and has endured only a “complaint.”

Needless to say, I don’t know if “pay-to-play” is a “sin against God.” But until Blagojevich is found guilty of a crime, it is his job to insure the process of government, of which appointing Obama’s successor is a governance act, goes on.

What we have seen from what we can see of the Blagojevich controversy is politics being played out. There’s corruption. Yet through the mess a lot of truth has been revealed. The process unexpectedly turned out to be pretty transparent as politics goes. With this glimpse of truth, for future reference people ought to use the occasion to identify who their friends are and are not.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina. His book, Waiting for Lightning to Strike, has just been  published by CounterPunch/AK Press. He can be reached at: kagamba@bellsouth.net

 

 

 

 

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Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is the editor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence from CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at kevinagray57@gmail.com

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