Some supporters of Roland Burris say that resistance to seating him in the U.S. Senate amounts to racism. But one man who blocked his nomination, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, calls this a hollow distraction.
White, an African-American, tells NEWSWEEK he has "taken a lot of heat" for refusing to certify Gov. Rod Blagojevich's selection of Burris, who would be the only black member of the Senate. "I wasn't going to be a rubber stamp" for "a man who just got out of jail," White says of Blagojevich, who was arrested by federal agents on Dec. 9 and charged with scheming to solicit bribes for the seat being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. White says he simply could not certify a Senate appointment "made under a cloud."
White, who drank from "colored-only" water fountains and rode in the back of the bus during his college days in Alabama, says he can recognize racism when he sees it—and corruption too, for that matter. There has been no indication that Burris has done anything improper to obtain the nomination from Blagojevich, but many Democrats believe that any appointee by the embattled governor could not be effective. At least for now, White's refusal to sign Burris's certificate of appointment has been cited by Senate officials as the reason that Burris cannot take office. But there are signs that opposition to Burris in the Senate could be softening, with Sen. Diane Feinstein saying this week that the Illinois politician should be seated and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying he would reconsider Burris's nomination under the right circumstances.
For his part, Burris, 71, has accused White of overstepping his powers by refusing to certify the Senate appointment. Burris has filed a lawsuit in Illinois to order White to sign the paperwork. "We don't believe the people of Illinois elected Jesse White to be the de facto governor," Timothy Wright, a lawyer for Burris, has told reporters. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sided with White on Wednesday, filing motions suggesting that the secretary of state isn't required to sign Burris's papers.
While Burris is known as the first African-American in Illinois to win statewide office—serving as comptroller from 1979 to 1991 and as attorney general from 1991 to 1995—White has broken his own political barriers. Elected to the state legislature in 1974, White was the first African-American in Illinois to represent a district where a majority of residents were white. For 16 years, he represented a section in the North Side of Chicago that included the high-rent neighborhoods of Streeterville and Lincoln Park, but also included the desperately poor Cabrini Green housing complex, populated almost entirely by blacks. "They used to say my district stretched from the Gold Coast to the Soul Coast," says White, who has long cultivated support across racial lines.
White was a protégé of the late Chicago political boss George Dunne, known for his movie-star elegance and Irish charm, the rare white politician who stood by Harold Washington, an African-American, when he won the Democratic nomination for mayor, and later the election. Years before, Dunne had launched White's political career. "George Dunne stuck his neck out for me in the '70s," says White, "when it wasn't a very popular thing to do."
White says growing up in an integrated neighborhood, and later forming alliances with progressive whites, left him with little appetite for angry, race-based politics. While he has polled strongly among African-Americans in his three successful elections to Illinois Secretary of State, White is scarcely the sort of figure who could raise the roof at a black political rally. The Rev. Marshall Hatch, a member of Concerned Clergy of Illinois, a group of African-American church leaders who have campaigned for the seating of Burris, says White "has never been seen as a black-rights leader," but rather as a steadfast loyalist to the Democratic Party. "Do African-Americans get real excited when they hear the name Jesse White?" Hatch asks. "Probably not. He's a guy who doesn't make waves."
Hatch says White's stand on the Burris situation means he "will take some lumps" among black voters. "But he'll enjoy support among blacks if he runs against a white candidate." The preacher says White also knows he can count on support of most white Democrats throughout the state. "He's a nice guy," Hatch says of White. "So that helps."
A star athlete in his high-school days in Chicago, White played college basketball and football at the University of Alabama in Montgomery. He later founded ++a championship tumbling group++, drawn mostly from impoverished housing projects. The group will perform at Obama's inauguration later this month.
White is the secretary of state who succeeded George Ryan, the former Governor who was ultimately sent to prison for corruption during his stint as secretary of state. White, who says he barred Ryan's practice of requiring employees to raise campaign contributions, has mostly won plaudits for running a clean office, and for expanding a popular organ donation program.
Long before Blagojevich's recent legal troubles, White publicly criticized his fellow Democrat as a man who could not be trusted. Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant who has worked for Democratic and Republican candidates, says White was "the first one to publicly condemn Blagojevich." Rose says he believes Burris will ultimately be seated in the Senate, but doubts White will pay any real price for trying to block the appointment. "I'm not sure much of the black community views this as a slap at Burris," says Rose, "as much as a slap at Blagojevich."