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Governor Blagojevich: Sly Fox Knows How to Use the Race Card

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The controversy over the seating of a new United States Senator to replace Barack Obama to represent the State of Illinois has reinforced some old core issues in America from Tip O'Neil's "all politics is local" to the adage that "race is always a factor."

But one thing is clear, not only is the embattled current Governor of Illinois, Rob Blagojevich, determined not to go down without a fight, but if he is going down, he is showing some street smarts mixed with political brilliance that we seldom see at any level - and what's more, if he does go down he may also cause some lasting intended damage in his wake.

A few days ago, the Governor announced that he would appoint Roland Burris to fill the Obama Senate seat. Burris is an African-American who was the first black elected to state wide office ever in Illinois (which means you have to do well downstate - not just in Chicago), and he already was a public servant with national notice, statewide support, and a reputation for integrity and political skill back when Barack Obama was a local community organizer.
No question, the qualifications and stature of Roland Burris stands on their own and would merit serious consideration for an appointment to fill this seat under any circumstances. But add to that the fact that Burris is an African-American and would be replacing another African-American in a Senate chamber with no other African-American members, and all of a sudden you add "external" components to the equation that make this situation far more complicated for all of those who have heretofore insisted that no appointment by Blagojevich should be seated in the Senate.

First of all, the dynamics have changed for the Democrats as to how to resolve the appointment of the new Senator. When the scandal first broke, virtually every Democrat both in Illinois and Washington was calling for a "special election" to circumvent the possibility of the Governor attempting to fill the seat by appointment. But after some reflection and the imbibing of no doubt most appropriate beverages, the Democrats have come to their senses. This is a scandal, and the main player is a Democrat. Even in regular elections following a scandal, the Party of the wrongdoers always has a tough time winning - and in a special election caused by the events of the scandal, that Party's chances of winning drop even further - and in Illinois, where Democrats don't do particularly well downstate even without scandal, the chances drop even further.

So for Illinois Democrats, the only really viable option was to press full speed ahead with the approach of impeaching Blagojevich and then have the Lt. Governor become Governor and let him make the new appointment. Not so fast.

Blagojevich may look like the "boy governor," but in fact he is proving to be an adult man who is smart, quick, and can fight not only in the ring of public opinion but can also help his own cause in ways that show he understands political history.

If this scandal had not taken place, it is highly unlikely that Gov Blagojevich would have selected Roland Burris as his appointment - he might likely have not even appointed any African-American. But as Michael Corleone told Robert Duvall in The Godfather when Duvall expressed surprise that it was Tessio rather than Clemenza who would betray Michael, "it's a smart move - Tessio was always smarter." And so we see here just how smart Blagojevich is.

The Governor gets two benefits from this appointment. First, he makes it just that much more complicated for an all-white Senate to "lock the door" on such an imminently qualified African-American candidate. And there are several white Democratic Senators from states who count on big city black voting blocs to keep Democrats in control who will be very nervous about the interpretation their African-American constituents might make about them voting not to seat Roland Burris.

Second, and even more important to Blagojevich, he gets to use the race card in a way that benefits him and demonstrates so clearly why race is a factor in virtually every area of our life. And it is important to make the point that race is so much a factor in so much of what we do in America that there are times, and I believe this is one of them, where race is a factor but not from the traditional perspective of prejudice or racism or discrimination. No, in this case, its very simple. If race is already a factor and you're indicted and about to go on trial, then for heaven sakes use it to your advantage.

This lesson goes all the way back to Treasury Secretary John Connolly who was indicted on charges involving price fixing in the milk industry. He was indicted in Washington DC, and even back then in the mid '70s, DC was already such a black majority populated city that the jury for his trial was overwhelmingly African-American. And Connolly, from Texas and whose claim to fame was the fact that he was in the limousine with John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was shot, drew on that traditional personal connection that blacks and whites in the South have always had that essentially transcended the vestiges of race and discrimination in the personal relationships they forged with each other as individuals and as groups. That jury acquitted Connolly, and from that day forth, white politicians have never forgotten to take into account the ramifications of black juries weighing in on their guilt or innocence.

Even more recently, Scooter Libby hired a black criminal defense lawyer to lead his defense in his trial - Why? - because Scooter Libby, one of Dick Cheney's top personal associates and longtime scion of conservatism wanted to demonstrate his commitment to affirmative action? I don't think so.

Libby chose a black lawyer because he knew that in Washington DC, his jury would be predominantly African-American, and he wanted to give himself every possible advantage he could.

And so Governor Rob Blagojevich knows he will also likely face a criminal prosecution and trial in Chicago, and his jury will likely be at least half if not majority African-American (since we know that upper income and highly educated whites in Lincoln Park and the north side and Lake Shore Drive will get out of jury duty just as that group demographic does everywhere in the country. And so Blagojevich will have an intangible benefit weighing in the back of the minds of the jurors who will judge him - here's a man who at least attempted to replace Barack Obama with another African-American so that there would be at least one black Senator in the US Senate. In a subtle and undiscussed way, this move absolutely will help Blagojevich with that significantly if not predominantly African-American jury.

It's a smart move, and speaking of gangsterism and corruption, even Michael Corleone would recognize the brilliance of Blagojevich's move. "He played this one beautifully," to quote another Godfather line referring to the scheming of Hyman Roth.

And President-elect Obama comes out of this aspect of the controversy just fine. By publicly opposing the seating of Burris because of the process that includes the tainted Governor, Obama comes across to mainstream America as making objective decisions that are not based on race or group pressure. Yet, we all know that Obama knows, likes and respects Roland Burris, and the new president would certainly applaud the Burris appointment if there were no other obstacles as Obama sees Burris himself as qualified - so it's not about Burris - its about Blagojevich. And Obama will not lose significant support in the African-American community because of the current position he has taken. It's a win-win, and once he starts to deal with the economy and bail-outs and job loss and the middle east and rising world tensions and campaign promises and commitments, win-wins will be hard to come by.

Earlier this past week, Meredith Vieira interviewed Roland Burris on the Today Show, and Vieira asked Burris if "it was appropriate to introduce race in this matter." Although Vieira's question was entirely legitimate and made sense, I still had to laugh because there was no time when race was not introduced into the situation once Blagojevich announced the appointment. It was there at that point, and it was there before that point as Blagojevich considered who he wanted to appoint. But here's my point - all these considerations don't make anybody a racist - no - it just means that we must acknowledge that the race factor is there in so much of what we do. And until we finally have that conversation on race in this country that I have been calling for over some period of time, we are doomed to not understand it in a way that can actually help us to move forward - not beyond - just move forward with it as part of the landscape.

In announcing the appointment of Roland Burris to fill the seat once held by our new president, Governor Blagojevich possibly made sure that he remains a major player to be considered in this matter - a person to be "treated with some respect" who has not only helped himself in the long run, thrown a wrench into the works at home in Illinois, but also, thanks to the national constituency that the Burris appointment will generate, submitted a choice to the US Senate that represents an offer they may not be able to refuse.

Carl Jeffers is a Los Angeles-and Seattle based columnist, TV political analyst, radio talk show host and lecturer. E-mail: cjintel@juno.com.