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Black ministers may rethink backing Burris

Many of Chicago's most influential black pastors supported Roland Burris' appointment to the  Senate, even though he was appointed by then-Gov. Blagojevich. Now that support may be waning.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Many of the city's most influential black pastors supported Roland Burris' appointment to the U.S. Senate, even though his name had been put forward by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Now that support may be waning.

A faction of black ministers plans to ask for Burris' resignation following revelations that the senator tried to raise money for the disgraced governor who appointed him, one of the ministers told The Associated Press on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity because a meeting with Burris had not yet been scheduled.

Clergy Speaks Interdenominational, an umbrella group that includes hundreds of Chicago's black churches, will meet Friday to discuss its support for Burris, spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin said. For now, the group still supports him and its leaders are unaware of discussions about asking him to resign, she said.

Burris spokesman Jim O'Connor would not say whether the senator would meet with ministers and referred to a statement from Burris asking that leaders "stop the rush to judgment."

Silence 'speaks volumes'
Current sentiment in the black community is not unanimous, but the clergy's silence so far as the maelstrom of criticism swells around Burris "speaks volumes," said another minister, Ira Acree, of the Greater St. John Bible Church.

"I'm a little disturbed, but because of his track record, don't want to rush to judgment," Acree said Thursday. "But neither will I attempt to defend his actions."

Burris testified before the Illinois House committee that recommended Blagojevich's impeachment in January that he hadn't had contact with key Blagojevich staffers or offered anything in return for the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

Perjury and ethics
Last weekend, however, Burris released an affidavit saying he had spoken to several Blagojevich advisers, including Robert Blagojevich, the former governor's brother and finance chairman, who Burris said called three times last fall asking for fundraising help. Burris, a former state attorney general, changed his story again this week when he admitted trying, unsuccessfully, to raise money for Blagojevich.

Illinois lawmakers have asked local prosecutors to look into perjury charges, and a preliminary U.S. Senate Ethics Committee inquiry is under way. Burris denies lying under oath and has resisted a growing chorus of calls for his resignation, including from within his own party.

Burris is, like Obama was, the only black U.S. senator.

Even before the U.S. Senate appointment became embroiled in controversy, Burris trumpeted clergy support, telling the AP on Nov. 5 that a half-dozen black ministers from Chicago had approached him to see if he was interested in the job.

A chance to defend himself
After Blagojevich named him to the seat, Burris appeared at a New Covenant Church service, where supporters including U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and about 60 ministers condemned Senate Democratic leaders for initially rejecting Burris.

Burris' latest revelations are "making the black community just as suspicious of him as anyone else," said the Rev. Leonard Barr of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church.

But Burris deserves a chance to defend himself and should not step down, he said. "I think he can do the job," Barr said. "He would be a good senator and a conscientious senator."

People who have supported Burris are torn between feelings of anger and betrayal and a desire to keep the only black senator in the country, said Laura S. Washington, a politics professor at DePaul University and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

"They're disappointed, embarrassed and worried that the seat will be in jeopardy," Washington said.