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What Blagojevich Owes Burris

Ben Joravsky is the author of Hoop Dreams and a staff writer for the Reader newspaper in Chicago.

It's only appropriate that Governor Rod Blagojevich appoint Roland Burris to fill Barack Obama's vacant senate seat. After all, Blago owes his governorship to Burris.

To understand, you have to return to 2002, when no one in the country was paying attention to politics in our goofy little fiefdom, and Blagojevich was running for governor in the Democratic primary. Hard as it is to believe now that he's an international sensation, Blagojevich, then a relatively unknown congressman from Chicago's northwest side, was not the front-runner in that race. His main opponent was Paul Vallas, the former head of Chicago's Public Schools, who had built quite a reputation as an unpredictable and slightly autocratic reformer--just the type of take-no-prisoners bulldog who had the potential to clean out the swamp of Illinois politics.

Vallas strength was his popularity in the city's black wards. During his six-year stint with the schools, he had assiduously courted the black community--the running joke was that he had attended more Saturday-morning meetings at Operation Push than Jesse Jackson. In contrast, Blago had no standing in the black community. There were few blacks in his district. More to the point, his father-in-law and political patron, Alderman Richard Mell, had vehemently opposed Mayor Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor--a fact that older black voters still have not forgotten. If Blagojevich and Vallas split the statewide white vote, it would be the black voters of Chicago who would put Vallas over the top.

And then Roland Burris jumped into the race. When the primary election was over, Blago had about 457,000 votes, Vallas 431,000, and Burris 363,000. But the real story was in the black precincts of city's west and south sides, where Burris accumulated about 85 percent of the vote. In the aftermath it was clear, had Burris not run, Vallas would have won, and we would have been spared the spectacle of the Blagojevich circus, as entertaining as it's been.

Of course, Blagojevich has a funny way of thanking the folks to whom he owes the most. Once in office he almost immediately cut off Alderman Mell, who has been steaming mad ever since. And now with this senatorial appointment, he has made Burris the butt of jokes across the nation, even if Burris, ever eager for higher office, doesn't quite get it.

Over the years, I've wondered if Burris candidacy in 2002 was part of some convoluted back-room deal engineered by the wily Alderman Mell, who moved heaven and earth to advance his son-in-law's career. I guess we'll never really know, unless of course it turns out that the feds were wire-tapping Blago even way back then.