Sen. Roland Burris (D)
Elected: Appointed Jan. 2009, term expires 2010, 1st full term.
Born: Aug. 3, 1937, Centralia .
Education: S. IL U., B.A. 1969; Howard U., J.D. 1963.
Family: Married (Berlean); 2 children.
Elected office: IL comptroller, 1979-91; IL atty. gen., 1991-95.
Professional Career: National bank examiner, U.S. Dept. of Treasury, 1963-65; VP, Continental IL Natl. Bank & Trust, 1964-73; Admin. officer, IL gov. cabinet, 1973-77; Practicing atty., 1995-2009
Roland Burris was named the junior senator from Illinois by then-Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich on December 30, 2008, amid a controversy over whether Blagojevich sought favors from candidates for the seat. The taint from the Blagojevich scandal followed Burris to Washington in early 2009, making for an unusually rough transition to the Senate. Then, after a series of damaging revelations about his conversations with people close to Blagojevich prior to his appointment, Burris announced in July that he would not run for the seat in 2010. That didn't end the matter entirely. On November 20, the Senate Ethics Committee publicly admonished Burris for discrediting himself and the Senate. In a letter to Burris, the panel concluded that he should have known that he was "providing incorrect, inconsistent, misleading or incomplete information to the public, the Senate and those conducting legitimate inquiries into" the appointment. A letter of admonishment is the committee's mildest form of punishment.
|Barack Obama (D)||3,595,299||(70%)||($14,532,493)|
|Alan Keyes (R)||1,389,850||(27%)||($2,545,325)|
|Barack Obama (D)||655,923||(53%)|
|Daniel Hynes (D)||294,717||(24%)|
|Blair Hull (D)||134,453||(11%)|
|Maria Pappas (D)||74,987||(6%)|
Burris grew up in Centralia, in Southern Illinois just about halfway between Chicago and Mississippi, and a stop on the Illinois Central Railroad’s famed City of New Orleans train. Burris’s father was a laborer for the IC. In the 1940s and early 1950s, racial segregation prevailed in Centralia, and well before the Rev. Martin Luther King’s bus boycott, the young Burris objected to being excluded from Centralia’s public swimming pool. On Memorial Day 1953, he showed up for a swim—with his lawyer. Centralia’s swimming pool was integrated. At that moment in his life, Burris decided to become a lawyer. In 1959, he graduated from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where he documented racial discrimination by merchants in the college town. In 1963, he graduated from Howard University Law School.
Those were the days of civil-rights demonstrations in the South and black political activism in Chicago, but Burris chose a different course. After law school, he worked as a bank examiner for the comptroller of the currency and, in 1964, went to work for Continental Illinois National Bank, then one of the nation’s largest banks, in the trust tax and commercial lending departments. He stayed with Continental until 1973. At a time when the streets of Chicago resounded with violent protests against racial bigotry and the Vietnam War, Burris worked in the quiet marble corridors of 231 South LaSalle St. and made loans to minority businesses. In five years, he became a vice president of the bank. He settled in the middle-class Chatham neighborhood on the South Side, around Cottage Grove and 82nd Street, a formerly Jewish neighborhood that had became predominantly African-American. He was active in local community groups and was a Democratic precinct worker.
As an African-American independent of Chicago’s machine politics and with banking experience, Burris attracted the attention of Gov. Daniel Walker, who was elected in 1972 as a maverick Democrat. From 1973 to 1977, Burris worked for Walker as the administrative officer in charge of central management services. (Gov. Pat Quinn also served in Walker’s administration.) For a short time in 1977, he was executive director of Operation PUSH, an organization founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In 1978, when Michael Bakalis ran for governor, Burris ran for state comptroller again and was slated by the powerful Chicago Democratic Party. He won the primary over state Rep. Richard Luft with 64% of the vote. In the general election, Burris ran against Republican John Castle, whom Gov. James Thompson had appointed as state comptroller. Burris gained an advantage by arguing that the comptroller should be independent of the governor, and he beat Castle only narrowly, 52%-46.5%. The victory made Burris, at age 41, the first black statewide official in Illinois history and a politician who might reasonably believe he had a limitless political future. Heady stuff for a kid from Centralia who half a dozen years earlier was an unknown bank officer.
In his 1982 bid for re-election, Burris had no primary opposition. He won the general election by 1.1 million votes, the third-largest popular-vote margin in Illinois history. Burris’s career continued on an upward trajectory. In February 1985, he unseated Gary, Ind., Mayor Richard Hatcher as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Burris’s continuing criticism of Thompson’s fiscal policies so nettled the governor that he recruited a well-known state senator, Adeline Geo-Karis, to challenge Burris for re-election in 1986. Geo-Karis criticized Burris for working only part-time as a lawyer and for accepting contributions from firms reimbursed by the state; but with strong support in Chicago and downstate, Burris won, 61% to 35%. Burris decided to run for attorney general in 1990, after the Democratic incumbent left the post to run for governor. (Thompson was retiring.) Campaigning as a supporter of abortion rights and gun control, Burris was unopposed for the nomination, thanks to strong support from state House Speaker Michael Madigan. In November, he beat Republican Jim Ryan, the DuPage County state’s attorney, 52%-48%. His onetime colleague in the Walker administration, Pat Quinn, was elected state treasurer that year, 56%-44%. As attorney general, Burris was criticized by some liberals for not challenging Republican redistricting plans and for not investigating the validity of a death penalty conviction after the lawyer on the case said the evidence was faulty. Some black political leaders also were miffed when he endorsed Sen. Alan Dixon in the 1992 Democratic primary over challenger Carol Moseley Braun, who won and made history as the first African-American woman elected to the Senate.
Running for governor had long been on Burris’s mind, and in the next three elections, in 1994, 1998, and 2002, he did run but without success. There was a common pattern: After many years of holding statewide office, he started off ahead in the polls and then fell behind, losing to three candidates with very different profiles—a lakefront liberal, a downstate moderate, and a Chicago congressman whose father-in-law was a longtime Democratic ward committeeman. Each time, Burris was underfinanced and lost with successively lower percentages of the vote.
On his third try in 2002, Burris once again started out ahead in the polls. “A name you know, a name you trust” was his slogan, and as usual, he called for gun control and more education funding. He was endorsed by U.S. Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush, and also by Jackson and his congressman son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. But Burris met serious competition in Rod Blagojevich, the 5th District representative and the son-in-law of 33rd Ward Democratic committeeman Richard (Dick) Mell. Blagojevich had much more money than Burris. Also in the contest was Paul Vallas, the Chicago Public Schools chief who had a creditable record. The final result: Blagojevich 37%, Vallas 34%, and Burris 29%. “I’m done, and it’s very easy to say that,” Burris said after the primary. “I’m at peace with myself.” He hung out a shingle as a political consultant and retreated from the limelight.
Fast-forward to December 2008. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was the president-elect of the United States, and Blagojevich was in his second term as governor. On December 9, Blagojevich was arrested, and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald released audiotapes in which the governor seems to boast about being in a position to profit personally or politically from his power to appoint a successor to Obama in the Senate. Sen. Dick Durbin and Lt. Gov. Quinn called for the Illinois Legislature to change the law so the seat could be filled in a special election but then backtracked when Democrats feared that a Republican might win. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced that a Blagojevich appointment “will not stand,” and 50 Democratic U.S. senators signed a letter calling on the governor to refrain from making an appointment. But on December 30, Blagojevich announced Burris as his choice. Burris stood by his side as Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush urged people “not to hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer” and noted that Burris “has not in 40 years had one iota of a taint” of corruption. Blagojevich stated ominously, “I don’t think that anyone, any U.S. senator who’s sitting in the Senate right now, wants to go on record to deny one African-American from being seated in the U.S. Senate.” But others reacted critically. Quinn said Burris “made a mistake in accepting the appointment.” Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White refused to sign Blagojevich’s certificate appointing Burris.
When Burris arrived in Washington on Monday, January 5, 2009, Majority Leader Reid and Sen. Durbin said they would block him from entering the Senate on Tuesday but would meet with him on Wednesday. On Tuesday, armed guards prevented Burris from entering the Capitol. But there were problems with the Democratic leaders’ position. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1967 that the House could not exclude a member from being seated. In that case, the controversial black congressman was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Just hours after Burris was blocked from entering the Senate floor, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein of California said that Burris, having been legally appointed, must be seated. Burris’s attorneys argued cogently that White’s refusal to sign the certificate was irrelevant; otherwise the secretary of state would have veto power over any gubernatorial appointment. In a visit to Capitol Hill, Obama said, “If Burris has legal standing, and it appears he has, he should be seated as quickly as possible.”
On Thursday, Burris told the Illinois House impeachment committee that before the election he had raised the idea of a senatorial appointment with Blagojevich’s former chief of staff and that the governor offered him the appointment a few days before Christmas. When asked if there was a quid pro quo, he said, “Absolutely, positively not.” Burris also said, “Never once did I doubt their intentions were motivated by anything other than doing what’s right for the people of Illinois and what they believe had to be done to protect the Senate as an institution.” On January 15, with Durbin led Burris up the aisle and Vice President Dick Cheney swore him in. He was assigned seats on the Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Veterans’ Affairs committees, and his maiden speech, in February, was in support of the nomination of Attorney General Eric Holder.
Two weeks after Burris was sworn in, the Illinois Senate voted 59-0 to remove Blagojevich from office, and Quinn became governor. On February 5, Burris filed an affidavit with the House impeachment committee in which he admitted to discussing a possible Senate appointment with three Blagojevich aides at different times, and saying that the governor’s brother had asked him to raise money for Blagojevich’s re-election—something Burris said he refused to do. On February 16, while making a statewide “goodwill tour,” Burris said he had asked about the appointment while raising money for Blagojevich.
After Burris’s seemingly contradictory statements, Illinois’s Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked for further investigation and the Chicago Tribune called on Burris to resign. On February 24, Durbin called Burris into his office and suggested he consider resigning. The same day, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said, “Senator Burris needs to take some time and think about whether he can actually help this country, whether he can serve the constituents of Illinois.” Quinn gave Burris an ultimatum: Resign in two weeks, or the Legislature would pass a law requiring a special election to fill the seat. Some African-American leaders felt Quinn had gone too far, and the next day, February 29, Quinn said he feared the return of the racial tensions that sparked Chicago’s bitterly divisive “Council Wars” in the 1980s. State Senate Democrats rejected the call for a special election. Meanwhile, Burris set up a legal defense fund and hunkered down to try to hang on to his Senate seat. But he struggled to raise money and several prominent state Democrats were preparing to challenge him if he ran for the seat in 2010. Finally, on July 10, 2009, Burris announced he would not run. His exit improved the Democratic Party’s chances of holding on to the Senate seat.