Prior to Roland Burris being tapped to fill Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat, another Black politician was approached to fill the position. Congressman Danny K. Davis decided against accepting the offer, but suggested Burris, who Governor Rod Blagojevich eventually appointed to fill the seat left by President-elect Obama. The frenzy behind the embattled governor’s possible impeachment and current federal investigation on corruption charges that he allegedly tried to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder would have made it seemingly impossible for any appointee to get the job. It’s a thought that ran through Davis’s mind on Christmas Eve when he was approached for the spot.
In the past few days, Senate Democrats have softened on the idea of Burris joining them as a U.S. senator, especially after his meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and getting a thumbs-up from former President Jimmy Carter. Even President-elect Barack Obama weighed in, saying he would work with Burris if he is seated. While the outcome has yet to be determined, Davis believes he made the right choice by saying no. He spoke with ESSENCE.com about what role race plays in filling the seat, about supporting Burris in his own particular way, and how he stayed out of the line of fire.
ESSENCE.COM: When did Gov. Blagojevich approach you about the Senate seat?
DANNY K. DAVIS: An emissary of the governor’s came to my office on Christmas Eve. I was a little bit surprised because even though he had been saying all along that he was going to appoint someone before Christmas, I didn’t realize that he had already reached that point. I indicated that I would give it some consideration and discuss it with my family. We met again the day after Christmas and I told them that I’ve decided not to take it because of the circumstances surrounding the appointment. I felt that it would detract from the work I’m engaged in doing.
ESSENCE.COM: Did the allegations of “pay to play” politics have anything to do with your decision to decline?
DAVIS: If there wasn’t the controversy surrounding the appointment, I’m pretty sure I would have made a different decision. But my feelings are that the governor is innocent until proven guilty. In fact, he hasn’t even been indicted and I suspect that after the agreement [Tuesday] between Senator Reid, Senator Durbin and Roland Burris that in all likelihood, Roland will be seated once certification comes from the Illinois secretary of state. At least that’s the way it looks now.
ESSENCE.COM: What kind of relationship do you have with Roland Burris?
DAVIS: I’ve known him for almost 30 years and worked in every campaign he’s been in, including those he’s won and those he’s lost. I saw him before he was appointed and shared some of my concerns with him. Actually, I’m the one who suggested to the governor’s people that they look at Mr. Burris as a possibility, so that tells you how I feel about his appointment. But he’s in a different situation than me. For the most part, he’s retired from his legal work. While I already know that I want to run for election in 2010 for the Senate seat, he will have to make that decision when that time comes. There’s no competition or anything of that nature. Remember, this wasn’t an election, it was a selection, and it looks as though things are going to turn out okay.
ESSENCE.COM: What are your thoughts on Congressman Bobby Rush’s decision to bring race into play, saying that the Senate seat must go to an African-American?
DAVIS: Congressman Rush just characterized his comments in relation to pushing hard for a Black appointee, whereas a number of people, including myself, pushed hard for choosing the most qualified person. I didn’t unequivocally believe that that person had to be Black.
ESSENCE.COM: In fact, didn’t you say it’s not really about race at all?
DAVIS: I don’t think I said it’s not about race at all. I said that race is a factor in practically everything that goes on in America. There’s no escaping it or getting around it. We’ve made tremendous progress in this country, but we still have a long way to go. We have many disparities and situations where race has been a deterrent and detriment. Part of the concern for many people with this appointment is that race could be a factor in who eventually could get elected. No one has ever said that race has anything to do with the ability to raise millions of dollars needed to successfully compete for a statewide office like that of U.S. senator. If one person cannot raise that money and someone else can and they are both qualified, excellent in their approach to policy making, both support the same causes and take the same positions, yet one can raise 5 million dollars and another can’t. It makes you think, well what’s the reason? Is that race, or two people who just don’t run in the same circles? Given that, it becomes difficult to say that race should be the only factor. Sure, I wanted someone Black to be the next senator, but it has never been in mind that only someone Black could hold the position and do an adequate job of representing me.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think is going to happen to Blagojevich?
DAVIS: If the allegations against him are found to be accurate, he’ll probably be impeached and convicted. The Illinois legislature is rapidly moving right now toward impeachment. They may impeach him and he still may not be found guilty of anything. I would hope it wouldn’t happen that way and there would be legal basis or grounds, but politics is not based upon legality. Politics is what people think and feel and how people act. One thing that I’ve learned is that politics doesn’t have to be right; it doesn’t have to be good; it doesn’t even have to be logical. We would hope that it’s logical, and at the very least legal, but it’s not always that way.