CHICAGO - A defiant Gov. Rod Blagojevich yesterday named a black political trailblazer to Barack Obama's Senate seat, a surprise move that put the governor's opponents in the uncomfortable position of trying to block his choice from becoming the Senate's only black member.
Blagojevich's appointment of former state Attorney General Roland Burris injected race into the drama surrounding the embattled governor, who repeatedly sought to distance his selection from charges that he tried to sell the seat to the highest bidder.
"Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint a good an honest man," the governor said, turning to the smiling 71-year-old standing by his side.
"This is about Roland Burris as a U.S. senator, not about the governor who made the appointment."
Burris was the first African-American elected to major statewide office in Illinois, serving as comptroller and running for governor three times - the last time losing to Blagojevich.
He said he has no connection to the charges against Blagojevich, who was arrested earlier this month.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who must certify the appointment, said he will not do so. And Senate leaders reiterated that they would not accept anyone appointed by Blagojevich.
"It is truly regrettable that despite requests from all 50 Democratic senators and public officials throughout Illinois, Gov. Blagojevich would take the imprudent step of appointing someone to the United States Senate who would serve under a shadow and be plagued by questions of impropriety," said a statement from Senate Democrats.
"We say this without prejudice toward Roland Burris' ability, and we respect his years of public service," Senate leaders wrote after a conference call. But the issue is not about Burris, they said. "It is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat."
Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 after federal prosecutors allegedly recorded conversations in which he discussed appointing someone Obama favored in exchange for a position in the new president's Cabinet or naming someone favored by a union if he got a high-level union job.
The governor has faced a flood of calls for his resignation, and the Illinois House has begun impeachment proceedings. He maintains his innocence.
Blagojevich's own lawyer said recently that there would be no point in the governor naming someone to the Senate because leaders there would reject his appointment. *