CHICAGO (AFP) — The corruption-tainted governor of Illinois defied Democratic party leaders Tuesday by appointing a prominent African-American statesman to the senate seat of president-elect Barack Obama.
Senate Democrats vowed not to seat former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris, saying he would "serve under a shadow and be plagued by questions of impropriety" in the wake of allegations that Governor Rod Blagojevich tried to sell the seat to the highest bidder.
Obama said that while Burris is "a good man and a fine public servant" he supports the decision not to seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich.
Obama called the governor's move "extremely disappointing," and said the "best resolution would be for the governor to resign his office and allow a lawful and appropriate process of succession to take place."
"While Governor Blagojevich is entitled to his day in court, the people of Illinois are entitled to a functioning government and major decisions free of taint and controversy," Obama said in a statement.
But Illinois congressman and civil rights leader Bobby Rush used racially tinged language in urging senate Democrats to reconsider, saying they should "not hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer."
Rush said Burris is a "worthy" candidate and noted that with Obama's departure, there will be no African-Americans in the US senate.
"I don't think that anyone -- any US senator, who's sitting in the senate, right now, wants to go on record to deny one African-American for being seated in the US senate," Rush said as he joined Burris and Blagojevich at a press conference.
Blagojevich, who has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, said he was merely fulfilling his duty to the citizens of Illinois after state lawmakers failed to call a special election.
"I am here to announce my intention to appoint an individual who has unquestioned integrity, extensive experience and is a wise and distinguished senior statesman of Illinois," Blagojevich told reporters.
"Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man."
Obama, who is on holiday in Hawaii before he takes office on January 20, has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the scandal.
Burris, 71, was the first African-American elected to statewide office in Illinois in 1978 when he won the office of state comptroller.
He held that post 1991, when he became the second African American in the United States elected to the office of attorney general.
Burris "has had a long and distinguished career serving the people of Illinois. He will be a great United States senator," Blagojevich said.
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said Burris's record and ability are irrelevant in the face of Blagojevich's December 9 arrest on fraud and bribery charges after FBI wiretaps allegedly revealed he had discussed ways to profit from the appointment.
"It is truly regrettable that despite requests from all 50 Democratic senators and public officials throughout Illinois, Governor 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," Durbin said in a statement.
"Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Governor Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus."
Blagojevich has refused to resign in the wake of the "seat-for-sale" scandal, but state lawmakers are currently leading an inquiry into whether there are grounds to impeach him and remove him from office.
He is also accused of demanding hefty campaign contributions in exchange for state contracts - including threatening to block funds to a children's hospital - and trying to get editors critical of his administration fired from the Chicago Tribune.
Burris, who is not thought to be among the six candidates discussed by Blagojevich in the FBI wiretaps, declined to comment on "the governor's circumstance" saying only that "in this legal process, you're innocent until you're proven guilty."
He also declined to say whether he would fight attempts to block his appointment, telling reporters "we will deal with the next step in the process."
"I am proud of my accomplishments as a public servant," Burris said as he accepted the appointment.
"I ask the people of Illinois to place the same faith and trust in me that they have in the past when they elected me" for earlier statewide positions.
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