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Gays tackle Burris pick [1 February, 2009]

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Governor Rod Blagojevich recently announced that he was appointing Roland Burris to the Senate seat previously occupied by President-elect Barack Obama.  The move has generated controversy, censure and ridicule.  The governor is being decried for equal parts hubris and arrogance, while Burris has been criticized for participating in what many claim is an unethical move.

This latest news may well turn out to be the most negative in Burris’s career, one that has seen a steady climb upwards, from being the first African American elected to statewide office in Illinois, first as comptroller (1979-1981) and then as attorney general (1991-1995).  Burris is well-liked and respected in political circles.  Michael O’Connor, former legislative aide to State Rep.  Connie Howard, said that Roland Burris is “eminently qualified.”  Burris has been broadly supportive of LGBT-defined issues.

(On Jan.  6, Senate authorities denied Burris the opportunity to be sworn in with the newest group of senators.  Burris was slated to meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid January 7 in the latter’s office.)

Rick Garcia, political director of LGBT-rights group Equality Illinois, praised Burris, saying that he has been supportive of gay rights throughout his political career and even sought out LGBT support for his possible nomination to the Senate seat as early as November 4, the night of Obama’s election.  According to Garcia, Burris approached him during the Grant Park celebrations, asking for the community’s support.

Garcia described Blagojevich’s appointment as “bittersweet,” going on to say that while “Roland Burris is highly competent and has an excellent record on lesbian and gay issues, anyone that this governor would appoint is tainted.  Governor Blagojevich could have appointed Mother Teresa and she would have been tainted.”  Garcia pointed out Burris’s record on LGBT issues: “Burris has had a long relationship with the Illinois LGBT community.  Even way back, when he was first appointed attorney general, he had openly gay staff, including Lisa Cohen, and his lobbying team lobbied the [bill designed to included sexual orientation in the statewide human-rights ordinance].

In a 1997 interview with BLACKlines and Outlines newspapers (which later merged with Windy City Times), Burris said he would not endorse gay marriage, using an argument that was somewhat evangelical in its fervor: “If you take it [same-sex marriage] to its ultimate conclusion, it will then be the destruction of the species.”  However, Garcia is not concerned about this because, as he put it, such a position is no different than that of most other pro-gay candidates who balk at gay marriage and, more importantly for Garcia, same-sex marriage is an issue to be fought for on the state and not at the federal level.  According to Garcia, Burris is solidly in the pro-gay category, given his ‘support for hate-crimes legislation, his stand on non-discrimination, and [his opposition to] DADT [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell].”

Ben Montgomery, constituent services administrator for U.S. Representative Danny Davis (who turned down the Senate seat before it was offered to Burris), thinks Burris is “an excellent choice.”  With regard to the LGBT community, Montgomery said, “I think he’d be responsive; he’s not close-minded on issues that affect us.”  Montgomery also pointed out the significance of Burris’s stature as the first African American elected to statewide office: “In the African-American community, we’re very proud of that.”

However, Montgomery did not approve of the way race was handled during the press conference where Blagojevich announced the appointment.  Both the governor and U.S. Representative Bobby Rush used the phrase “lynching” and strongly suggested that it was incumbent upon the state to elect Burris in order to ensure that an African American would occupy the seat.  As Montgomery put it, “Roland can stand on his own track record.  I don’t agree with making it a racial issue [and] on the whole general issue of using race in order to get something accomplished, such as this.  Because the man that was chosen is above that.  He has not accomplished what he’s accomplished without the support of the white, Black and Hispanic populations.  I don’t agree with using race as a way to pressure people.  It has no place here.”

Montgomery added that he was looking forward to Burris becoming a U.S.  Senator, hopeful that he would sign on to important LGBT-focused legislation such as increasing Ryan White Care Act funding, and helping make voluntary HIV testing as routine as a blood test.

— Also contributing: Tracy Baim

Originally published in Windy City Times, 1 February, 2009

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