There was never any doubt that race would be a huge factor in filling Obama's vacant Illinois senate seat. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich proved that when he dumped veteran Democratic Party war horse Roland Burris into the seat. But Obama virtually guaranteed that race would be an issue, a big issue, in determining who got the seat. And in a weird backdoor way, so did the state's Republicans.
Obama, of course, ran against the hapless, political laughingstock Alan Keyes for the Senate seat in 2004. But Keyes was also black. And the state's GOP-- battered, splintered, and reeling from sex and corruption scandals and desperate to put a face in the race against Obama-- chose to run him anyway.
Keyes didn't have a prayer of beating Obama. But the sight of two African-Americans facing off against each other for a prized U.S. senate seat firmly implanted the notion that the seat could and should be held by an African-American. This was hardly a novel idea. There was already precedent for that. Carol Moseley Braun held the seat for one term a few years before Obama. Braun and Obama gave Illinois the distinction of having two black senators from the same state within a decade. That was exactly double the number of blacks any other state had ever elected to the senate.
The idea that there are seats and appointments specially reserved for blacks and minorities in Illinois or anywhere else is hardly an aberration. Politicians, both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, shuffle the race card with staff, cabinet seat and political appointments all the time. Republican George Bush Sr. appointed Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas to the "black seat" on the Supreme Court. Democrat Lyndon Johnson established the minority reserved court seat when he appointed Thurgood Marshall.
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush appointed blacks and Hispanics to HUD, Transportation and Commerce cabinet posts. They were widely regarded as the minority designated cabinet posts. The appointments of blacks and and other minorities are standard and accepted political and racial payoffs. Blagojevich was just following the script in tapping Burris for Obama's seat.
Democratic insiders whispered and even openly said and expected that the Senate seat would be filled by an African-American. Even the Democrats who loudly saber rattled Blago for thumbing his nose at them by making the appointment were careful not to make Burris the issue. The Democrats and Obama claim the issue is simply whether the scandal-plagued governor has the legal and ethical right to appoint anyone to the seat. It would be disastrous and hypocritical if they even remotely hinted that Burris is a political dinosaur with slim to nonexistent qualifications to serve in the Senate. It's hypocrisy because Democratic politicians know that politically expedient appointments are the norm rather than the exception. It's disastrous because any frontal attack on Burris for his competence or skimpy qualifications Democrats risks leaving Democrats wide open to the knock that they are trying to water down black political influence.
Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush warned as much when he stood next to Blagojevich and Burris at the press conference to announce Burris's appointment. Rush virtually charged that a refusal to seat him would be tantamount to denying an African-American a seat. Rush didn't say it, but he could have added that if Burris gets the ax by the courts, state legislature or U.S. Senate Democrats, the Senate would be one of the last bastions of lily white office-holding in America. There are no other African-Americans there.
Democrats and Obama can wax indignant about how a stubborn, corrupt governor mocks the democratic process by dealing the race card in appointing Burris. But the race card probably would have been dealt whether Blagojevich was there or not. That's simply the way the political game is played.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009)