Monday, July 27, 2009
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Race for Obama's old Senate seat could cost Senate some diversity

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[July 27, 2009]  CHICAGO (AP) -- When Illinois chooses a new senator next year, voters will decide not only who wins an election but whether the overwhelmingly white U.S. Senate loses some of its diversity.

RestaurantThe seat up for grabs has produced three of the nation's four black senators in modern history. It paved the way for Barack Obama to be America's first black president. The Senate's only black member -- Roland Burris -- currently holds it.

Without an incumbent or Democratic heir apparent, the race is wide open. So far, most of the declared candidates are white. That leaves open the possibility that the chamber could have no black members come 2011, even though efforts are under way to find a black candidate in Illinois.

"When you make progress, you don't want to go backward. You don't want to lose opportunities that you have created," said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, a black congressman from Chicago.

Among the blacks now running for Senate are Republican Ryan Frazier, a city council member in Aurora, Colo., and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, a Democrat. The race in Illinois is still unfolding, but so far, no major black candidate has emerged.

Burris announced earlier this month he won't seek a full term, because of fundraising problems stemming from his links to disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The ousted governor was charged with trying to sell the seat for personal and political gain and despite his arrest, went ahead and appointed Burris to the post last December.

Senate leaders initially refused to accept Burris' appointment, but they changed course amid growing complaints about denying access to the Senate's only black member. When Burris decided not to vie for the seat, it raised the question whether there would be a high-profile black candidate in the contest.

At least one Chicago group is working to find such a candidate. Clergy Speaks Interdenominational, a coalition of about 200 churches, plans to identify potential candidates, said its president, the Rev. Albert D. Tyson III. They are still figuring out how that process will work.

"I think that Illinois needs good representation, and my hope and my prayer would be that we would find a candidate of color who is agreed upon by all parties. But what I want ultimately is for the state of Illinois to be properly represented," Tyson said.

Cheryle Jackson, Chicago Urban League president, is the only black Democrat to announce an interest in running. But she has been largely silent about her plans in recent weeks. The political rookie would have to deal with her own ties to Blagojevich because she worked as his spokeswoman during his first term.

First-term Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is seeking the Democratic nomination, and Chicago businessman Christopher Kennedy, whose father was the late Robert F. Kennedy, could join the field.

A variety of reasons are keeping some of Illinois' best-known black politicians out of the race.
U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., for instance, expressed interest after Obama's election and later had discussions with Blagojevich about being appointed to the seat. Jackson has said he did nothing wrong, but his association with Blagojevich damaged his public image, and a congressional ethics board was looking into the matter.

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Davis, the congressman, says he's running for president of the Cook County Board, the agency that runs the state's most populated county, including Chicago.

At least two lesser-known black candidates are interested in running: the Rev. Anthony Williams possibly as an independent and entrepreneur Eric Wallace as a Republican.

But Republican Party officials have rallied around U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a white, five-term congressman from Chicago's north suburbs.

Kirk said Tuesday that the question for voters isn't a candidate's race but who can best represent all Illinois residents. "This seat is not owned by any one particular group," he said.

America has had only six black senators, two during Reconstruction following the Civil War and four since the 1960s.

The first black person to hold the Illinois seat was Carol Moseley Braun, who won it in 1992 and lost it six years later to Republican Peter Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald didn't seek re-election, and Obama captured the seat in 2004, trouncing another black candidate, conservative Republican Alan Keyes. Then came Burris.

Those three senators, particularly Obama, have given the seat special significance for some black voters and leaders. It represents both important progress toward political equality and the long road that still lies ahead -- after all, it's just one seat out of 100.

"If you ask anybody on the street, 'Should this be a black seat?' they'll tell you yes without even having to stop and think about it," said Timuel Black, a retired college professor and Chicago activist.

However, black leaders are careful not to imply that a black candidate is more deserving of the seat.

"This is no question that diversity in the U.S. Senate is lacking," said U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, in an e-mail statement. "It is up to the people of Illinois to decide who represents them."

[Associated Press; By DEANNA BELLANDI]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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