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Speculating About an Obama Vacancy

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Speculating About an Obama Vacancy

People are wondering who will fill Sen. Barack Obama’s seat if he wins the presidency.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

When Illinois Senator Barack Obama clinched the Democratic Presidential Nomination last week, the possibility of his election in November became more immediate than ever. In his home state, that put new heat on a question that’s been simmering for months. One that seems to be getting more and more complicated.

For people who follow Illinois politics it was fodder for speculation as early as last winter.

ZORN: Well, it was one of those things where, as Obama’s nomination because increasingly likely, people just started asking me and each other, ‘Who’s going to be our senator for the last two years of his term, if he’s elected president?’

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn was one of the first people to kick the question around in public, which he did back in February.

He started with the rules for filling such a vacancy.

ZORN: We started looking around and finding out what the procedure is, and it turns out that the procedure is different in every state.

In this state, turns out the decision would go to a single official, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

ZORN: So our governor, who doesn’t get along with very many people anymore, Democratic governor, if Obama’s elected president, gets to select the next senator.

Zorn said earlier—and it’s remained true—there isn’t an obvious choice here, and there are a lot of feasible scenarios.

ZORN: Will he pick an ally, which is clearly the first thing you’d think. Or will he pick one of his political foes, one of his challengers inside the Democratic party, someone he wants to get rid of, also a possibility. And a third possibility, one people have been buzzing about a little bit, is will he pick himself?

Zorn called insiders and politicians to come up with names who would fit those scenarios.

Some of the possibilities were pretty obvious: Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes. Some were less obvious, like Veterans Affairs Chief Tammy Duckworth.

All together, the short list—the short list swelled to a dozen. And you could argue it’s even grown since then. With so many names, speculation is obviously complicated.

And it’s only seemed to get more unclear as people have continued to discuss it.

One complicating factor is that it can be considered a little gauche for politicians to go after an ally’s job while he’s still in it—those who are interested don’t want to be counted out—but it’s tacky to appear too eager.

ZORN: To me it looks a lot like the vice presidential jockeying that goes on. Where you get these men and women on the Sunday talk shows, and the host will say, ‘Do you want to be vice president?’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh gosh, it’s the last thing from my mind, but of course, if I were asked...’ and you know, these names are on everybody’s short list. I think you had Jan Schakowsky recently say.

SCHAKOWSKY: Well you know I have announced my interest. That’s really about as far as I’m going now.

In April, on a Sunday morning talk show, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois became the first person to openly express interest. But as a national co-chair of Obama’s campaign, Schakowsky’s been careful and savvy.

SCHAKOWSKY: Truthfully, Ben, I’m not thinking so much about the Senate so much, or certainly not implementing anything. I think it still is untimely and unseemly right now to be focusing on that because we need to get Barack Obama elected.

But even if good manners push it behind closed doors, it’s safe to assume that there’s been plenty of maneuvering going on for months.

Which leads to another layer of complication. Even if the decision is the governor’s, a potential vacancy of this magnitude means the biggest players in Illinois politics have an interest in who gets picked.

DURBIN: I hope he ends up picking someone who can work with me because that will make life a whole lot more pleasant in the senate.

Illinois’ Senior Senator and Democratic Majority Whip Dick Durbin has an obvious stake in the decision.

DURBIN: I have feelings about it, but I have not been approached by the governor or any of his people to come up with names. I hope if he thinks it’s appropriate at some point that he will consult with me about his choice.

Besides Durbin, it’s relatively safe to assume Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, and State Senate President Emil Jones have their own ideas too. As if that’s not complicated enough—you’ve also got to think about Blagojevich’s own situation.

GITELSON: In effect, the legal problems that he has or may be having in the near future are the elephant in the room that cannot be avoid.

Loyola University Political Scientist Alan Gitelson is talking about the federal investigation pointed at Blagojevich’s administration.

That investigation has been going for years, and earlier this month, Blagojevich’s friend, advisor and fundraiser Tony Rezko was convicted on corruption charges.

While Blagojevich has not been charged with any crime, speculation is greater than ever that the governor might be indicted or impeached.

GITELSON: If the consequences of recent judicial action suggest that his governancy is in trouble, or that he himself is in trouble, then indeed the picture changes. The calculus changes significantly.

Blagojevich’s uncertain future is just another reason that the speculation game around a potential Obama senate vacancy is dicey.

For his part, the governor is hanging back. A spokesperson for Blagojevich says it’s “way too premature” to even talk about replacing Obama. Which leaves the door open for even more speculation.

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