The tragicomedy that is Illinois politics has seen many a colorful character dance across the stage, entertaining the hard-bitten and cynical press with the brazenness of their malfeasance and devil-may-care attitude toward who might know it.
But Roland Burris was supposed to be different. He is a man with nearly two decades of unblemished service first as Illinois comptroller and then two terms as Illinois attorney general. He was widely respected as a clean, honest politician with unquestioned integrity.
But despite the respect he had garnered through the years, Burris felt his career was incomplete. Twice he ran for governor and lost. His bid for mayor of Chicago and another try for the Senate were unsuccessful. Friends said these failures ate at him, that he thought himself a lesser light in the political firmament because he had never achieved the high office he so coveted.
Then came the Obama candidacy for president and almost from the day that Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, Burris was pushing himself forward to replace him in the Senate:
“He wanted to end his career with a statewide office,” said friend, traveling companion and WVON radio host Cliff Kelley, who recalled Burris becoming upset when others were mentioned as potential Obama successors and he was not. “He really wanted this. He never thought he’d get it, but he was hoping for it.”
Burris’ current problems can be traced directly to this overarching desire to top his career off with a bang. Instead, he is likely to end it in shame.
Here’s story number one:
His troubles began on January 5 of this year when he submitted an affidavit to the Illinois House impeachment committee, which was looking into the question of whether to bring Governor Rod Blagojevich to trial in the state Senate for his conduct in trying to sell the senate seat being vacated by President Obama, among other misadventures. In that sworn document, Burris stated that he had no contact with any of Governor Blagojevich’s representatives prior to December 26, when the governor’s lawyer called him about the senate seat.
And story number two:
On January 8, Burris appeared before the impeachment committee to give his make or break testimony. The U.S. Senate was already up in arms over the fact that the disgraced governor named a candidate for the senate seat despite their warnings he wouldn’t be seated. But Blagojevich correctly judged the political quandary he had placed the Democratic leadership in by naming a respected African American to the job. With black activists organizing a nationwide campaign to support Burris, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed to be softening his stand to bar him from serving.
But Reid was specific in his warning to Burris about his testimony before the impeachment inquiry:
After days in which Senate leaders had demonstrated determined resistance to Burris’ appointment to the Senate by scandal-tainted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Reid praised Burris as “candid and forthright.” And he suggested the testimony Burris is to give Thursday before the state legislature’s impeachment committee could be crucial to his prospects of gaining the seat.
“He’s going to go answer any other questions they might have. He’s not trying to avoid any responsibility and trying to hide anything,” said Reid (D-Nev.) “Once that’s done, we’ll be in a different position and see what we are going to do.”
Burris’s appearance went so-so. There were complaints from Republicans that the candidate was not very forthcoming about some aspects of his testimony with regards to who his clients were that he lobbied for in Springfield. And there was one crucial contradiction to his sworn affidavit from January 5. Burris admitted to a contact where the Senate seat was discussed with Lon Monk, former chief of staff and close friend of Governor Blagojevich. But the Democrats let that small discrepancy slide. Anyone can make a mistake.
Story Number Three…
Sometime between the January 8 hearing and February 4, Roland Burris discovered that the FBI had taped at least one of his conversations with the governor’s brother, Rob Blagojevich, who was heading up fundraising for the governor’s re-election campaign. There has been some speculation that the office of U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who was using the thousands of hours of tapes that trapped the governor to build his case against Blagojevich, may have, as a courtesy, warned the Burris camp. There has been no comment from either the FBI or Fitzgerald’s office on whether they had contact with Burris or his lawyer. However, it seems certain that it was the prospect of being exposed as a liar that impelled Burris on February 4 to send a new, “corrected” affidavit to Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, chairman of the impeachment committee. In it, he admitted to five separate contacts with Governor Blagojevich’s representatives, including three with the governor’s brother.
Burris put the best face on it that he could:
“There were several facts that I was not given the opportunity to make during my testimony,” Burris said. “I voluntarily submitted an affidavit so everything was transparent.”
Finally, story Number Four:
For reasons that seem unbelievable, Rep. Currie sat on Burris’s updated affidavit, never releasing it to the press. All the while the debate over the stimulus bill was raging in the Senate. It wasn’t until the Chicago Sun Times somehow got wind of the story and confronted Burris on February 13 with his altered testimony that Burris gave the newspaper a copy of the affidavit which the Sun Times published the next day.
Burris told the Sun Times that he refused to raise any money for the governor and that he personally would not donate any cash to get Blagojevich — whose popularity stood at 13% with voters at that time — re-elected. Almost immediately he had to backtrack when at a news conference on February 15, Burris admitted that he had actually phoned around to fat cats trying to get them to contribute to Blagojevich’s campaign.
Four stories — and the ballgame.
Even for Illinois, that must be some kind of record. The Sun Times’ scrappy Mark Brown shows why no one — not even Burris’s African American base — believes him anymore:
Burris said Sunday he sees no inconsistency between the affidavits, arguing that the earlier affidavit pertained to the “appointment” and the more recent to the “Senate seat” — drawing a distinction that was frankly lost on most of us attending a particularly contentious press conference. Reporters get that way when somebody lies to them.
Chicago’s treasured columnist John Kass — who refers to Burris as “Senator Tombstone (D-Lying Weasel) — reported on a Burris appearance at the ancient and honorable City Club of Chicago, where 800 of Chicago’s elite meet to network and discuss policy and politics. Burris refused to answer any questions from a hissing press corps until one brave soul shouted out a query:
Jeff Berkowitz, host of “Public Affairs,” got one in about whether it was wrong of Burris to solicit funds for Blagojevich at the time Blago was considering Burris for the Senate.
“I was never considered for the Senate,” chattered Roland.
The crowd hissed, murmuring, “What?” “What?” to one another, clucking that whichever Roland it was up there was either bonkers or a liar.
“I was never considered by the Senate,” Roland said.
Is it any wonder that the Chicago Tribune, the Sun Times, and the Washington Post have all called on Burris to do the honorable thing and resign? And to show just how much trouble Burris has gotten himself into, AP reports that some African American pastors who strongly supported Burris in his fight to be seated will try and meet with him and ask him to step down.
Even his fellow Illinoisan, Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who is traveling in Turkey on congressional business, all but called on his colleague to resign:
“I am troubled by this and I hope he will call in some advisers he trusts and gets some advice about what to do next,” Durbin said of Burris. “At this point, his future in the Senate seat is in question.”
Durbin must feel especially betrayed considering he vouched for Burris to his fellow Democratic senators, who were balking at seating anyone — black or white — appointed by Blagojevich.
Meanwhile, the county prosecutor has opened a perjury investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee is gearing up their own inquiry, and everyone is wondering how much longer Burris can hold out. But I think It will probably take more than a few African American preachers and newspaper editorials to get Burris out of the Senate. Now it is his integrity that is at stake, not just the realization of his dreams of higher office. A proud man, a man beloved still among ordinary African American voters, Burris has apparently convinced himself he has done nothing wrong.
Until he is disabused of this fanciful notion, or until the Senate rouses itself and kicks him out, Roland Burris will stay right where he is, right where he wants to be, and right where he thinks he deserves to be — topping off a long and distinguished career of elected public service in our nation’s capitol, serving as the junior senator of Illinois.