Illinois' Revolving Door Senate Seat Up for Grabs | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Illinois' Revolving Door Senate Seat Up for Grabs

We're less than 8 months away from primary elections in Illinois. And the U.S. Senate race - in particular - remains well up in the air. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky bowed out earlier this week. But a number of big names are still interested in the seat, which has changed hands multiple times in recent years.

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Slideshow: Senators throughout the years

The seat up for grabs next year - the one now held by Roland Burris - has hosted five senators in the last 17 years. The turnover began in 1992, when Cook County Recorder of Deeds Carol Moseley Braun beat two-term incumbent Alan Dixon in the Democratic primary.

MOSELEY BRAUN: It's a new day in America. Illinois is sending a woman to the United States Senate. (applause)

Moseley Braun gets in trouble quickly over questions of campaign accounting, and a controversial visit with the Nigerian dictator.

FITZGERALD: My job is going to be to articulate just how far radical Carol Moseley Braun is.

Millionaire Peter Fitzgerald knocks Moseley Braun from the seat in 1998, but decides not to seek reelection.

Then we have 2004: the year of the divorce papers. Early Democratic favorite Blair Hull bottoms out after it was revealed he hit his ex-wife. And Republican rising star, Jack Ryan, finds himself defending past activities with his celebrity ex-wife.

RYAN: There's a dispute about exactly the situation, but...
STEVE EDWARDS: Going to sex clubs.
RYAN: ...having marital relations with your spouse, I think, is not something that is beyond the pale.

Ryan drops out. And his replacement, carpetbagger conservative Alan Keyes, is crushed by then-state senator Barack Obama. The Senate seat then experienced some relative calm, with the occasional whisper that Obama was considering another job. And two years and one month into his term...

OBAMA: I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America. (applause)

You know what happens next. And then, the U.S. attorney alleges Governor Rod Blagojevich had a personal interest in the seat.

FITZGERALD: He attempted to sell the Senate seat. The Senate seat he had the sole right under Illinois [law] to appoint to replace President-elect Obama.

Despite his arrest, Blagojevich appoints former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the Senate. After a soap opera of sorts, Burris gets sworn in, then faces allegations of perjury.

BURRIS: I've done nothing wrong, and I have absolutely nothing to hide.

And that, just about brings us up to speed.

Now, there is an obvious downside to all this turnover. Senators need to stick around for a while to get seniority and snag a plum committee chairmanship or leadership job. That's the case with Dick Durbin, who's held Illinois' other seat for the last 12 years, and is now the second most powerful Senate Democrat. But, there is an upside to the revolving door.

BINDER: The advantage of turnover in the Senate is that the immediate interests of Illinois voters are brought to the table in Washington.

Sarah Binder studies Congress for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

BINDER: It's all too easy to become complacent about one's position in Washington, but the constant reminder that these are hard-fought elections, I think, helps shake-up the place and potentially gets better representation out of that senator.

It's noteworthy here that of the six African Americans elected to the Senate in U.S. history, three of them - Moseley Braun, Obama and Burris - served in this seat for Illinois in recent years.

Burris hasn't announced whether he's running for a full term in the 2010 election. But the ballot could read like a dynamite political roster. Alexi Giannoulias, the 33-year-old state treasurer and basketball pal of the president's, is raising money fast. Chris Kennedy, son of the late Senator Robert Kennedy and chief of Chicago's Merchandise Mart, is considering a run. So is Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the daughter of Michael Madigan, who's ruled the state House for all but two years of the last quarter century.

Attorney General Madigan and Republican Congressman Mark Kirk are weighing the Senate seat against the governor's office. That's another post in Illinois that's had an, uh, arresting recent past.

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