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Commentary: Who will replace Barack Obama in the Senate?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 9, 2008 - Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has an important decision to make — determining who will fill Barack Obama’s seat in the Senate. There will be two years remaining in his Senate term when Obama takes the presidential oath of office.

The governor has two important factors to keep in mind while making this appointment. 

First, there is a respected tradition that Chicago and downstate Illinois representation be balanced. The senior senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, is a native of East St. Louis and handily won re-election in 2008. The seat being vacated by Obama is the “Chicago” seat — so Blagojevich’s choice will likely come from Chicagoland.

Second, Obama has been the only African American in the U.S. Senate. Blagojevich might feel some pressure to maintain this diversity in his selection, so diverse candidates might have an edge.

The short list for the position is not public knowledge, but some choices are rising to the top.

One is Tammy Duckworth, a major in the Illinois National Guard who lost her legs in Iraq. She made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2006 and currently serves as the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Her appointment to the Senate would make her the first Asian-American serving in that chamber from Illinois and the third in the current Senate. Chicago news sources indicate that she has Durbin’s support for the appointment.

Jesse Jackson Jr. has made it clear that he would like to fill out Obama’s Senate term. Jackson Jr. has served as a member of Congress from Chicago’s 2nd District since 1995. He was one of many national co-chairs of the Obama campaign and has defended Obama from attacks — including those coming from his father.  This appointment would fulfill the two tacit requirements well.

There is a stronger choice for Blagojevich, though: Lisa Madigan, the current Illinois attorney general. While she would not add to the ethnic diversity of the chamber, her appointment could serve a much larger purpose in Illinois: political healing. 

The Republican Party in Illinois went into turmoil in 2004. The retirement of Peter Fitzgerald from the U.S. Senate after just one term, the late withdraw of Jack Ryan from the Senate race amid a flood of bad press (and the last minute replacement of Alan Keyes), and the scandals of Gov. George Ryan created a disastrous political environment for that party. Democrats won handily and hold all the key positions of power — but the Democrats have not been getting along.

Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan have been publicly feuding over budget and policy priorities in the state for months. The battles have been extensive and open. While it is understandable why both politicians would want to hold their ground, it is also understandable that something will have to be done to break this deadlock if the Democrats want to maintain their strong political position as the re-election looms. 

Enter Lisa Madigan. The daughter of House Speaker Madigan might be the solution to the Democrats’ problem. Appointing Madigan to the vacant Senate seat from Illinois might be what it takes to heal the political rift. The governor needs to show leadership in this appointment to heal his party and effectively govern his state.

Andrew J. Theising, Ph.D., is director of the Institute for Urban Research and associate professor in the Department of Political Science at SIU Edwardsville.

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