Roland Burris hopes Tim Scott will focus on issues 'pertinent' to blacks

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CHICAGO – Republican Rep. Tim Scott’s appointment to the U.S. Senate came as no surprise Monday, since he was known early on as the favorite to fill the South Carolina seat. Scott, 47, will now serve out the remainder of resigning Senator Jim DeMint’s term, making him the only black member of the Senate and the first black Republican to serve in the chamber since the 1970s.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s groundbreaking selection will make Scott the seventh black to ever serve in the U.S. Senate. The last three were Democrats from Illinois: Carol Moseley Braun, Barack Obama and Roland Burris. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts was the last black Republican, who lost his seat in 1978.

But it’s been at least three years since an African-American was appointed to the Senate.

As the last black American to be appointed to the Senate, Burris, 75, now retired, underwent much scrutiny for accepting the appointment from disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was arrested and charged after allegedly trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder.

“The fact that the governor appointed me in his controversy, and the fact that I had the audacity to take the appointment, the press felt that maybe he shouldn’t be appointing anybody, because he was alleged charged and convicted of trying to sell the Senate seat,” Burris said. “It had nothing to do with my qualifications.”

According to Dick Simpson, former Chicago alderman and now head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “They considered it an improper appointment and almost refused decision in the Senate. They eventually relented. It wasn’t that he was being appointed, it was that he was being appointed by Blagojevich.”

Burris, who has a longstanding political career, including being the first African-American elected to a statewide office in Illinois as Comptroller, reportedly accrued up to as much as $800,000 mostly in legal fees — in the battle to keep his Senate seat.

Reflecting on serving Obama’s remaining term, Burris insists that that public scrutiny and media strain was the only hardship he suffered as an appointee. Otherwise, he says, “I was afforded all rights and privileges that any elected official would receive.”

Scott, too, will get the same rights and privileges, according to Simpson. But his appointment, while spotlighting resurgent black Republicans in a Democratic Senate and House, is one to be handled carefully, Burris says.

“I just hope that the gentleman will understand the issues that are pertinent and on the minds of black Americans,” Burris said of Scott. “I don’t know him, I have no dealings with him, and would have to reserve judgment on him until I see how he’s going to act to the issues in the black community across this nation.”

Burris lists the top three issues in the black community as disparity in health care, disparity in employment and disparity in education. “Those are the key issues impacting our community severely,” he said.

While Scott is presumably the favorite to win the 2014 special election, he still has much more ground to cover as a freshman, according to Simpson. “It’s expected that he won’t be a significant figure. He’ll need to prove himself and get re-elected before he has any major role.”

Renita D. Young is a Chicago-based multimedia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.