At Large

Take Me Back to Chicago

Rod Blagojevich gave Roland Burris a Senate seat. Will their connection take it away?

By 2.19.09

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Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) has erected a stonewall in his bid to hold his seat after making several changes to his story of how he was appointed by ousted Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. The most recent -- and most damning -- change was his stunning admission Monday night, that he in fact had made fundraising phone calls for Blagojevich after all.

"With ongoing investigations under way," Burris told a City Club of Chicago luncheon crowd of 300 yesterday, and perhaps 50 assembled reporters, "I will no longer engage the media and have facts drip out in selective soundbites." He was referring to the announced probes by both the Sangamon County State's Attorney and the Senate Ethics Committee.  

Burris denied the assembled journalists their customary post-luncheon press conference by briskly departing the venue after his remarks. Burris's new tack comes after several days of ongoing press contact and deepening confusion about what, exactly, is the real story of his appointment.

The Chicago Tribune Tuesday called on Burris to step down. Growing numbers of Illinois Republicans are demanding a special election to select his replacement, while several leading Illinois Democrats are unusually supportive of investigating one of their own.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) applauded Burris's   "decision to cooperate" with investigators, while ethics committee chair Barbara Boxer's (D-Calif.) spokesman said "a preliminary inquiry" always results when allegations of impropriety reach the committee.

Illinois' senior senator, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, told Chicago Tribune political writer Rick Pearson after Burris's lunch address, "At this point, his future in the Senate seat is in question."

"I'm troubled by the fact that his testimony was not complete and it was unsatisfactory. It wasn't the full disclosure under oath that we were asking for," Durbin said from Turkey, where he is on Senate business.  Accompanying Durbin is Democratic state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who makes no secret of his interest in challenging Burris, should he survive until 2010.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, also a Democrat Democrat, has urged the Republican prosecutor of Sangamon County, home of state capital Springfield, to investigate Burris for statements made under oath to the state house impeachment committee on January 8.

Madigan, whose father is the Speaker of the Illinois House, is seen as a possible Burris successor should Pat Quinn, the new governor, be allowed to appoint. In this line, Quinn sending the attorney general to the Senate would buy peace with Madigan's father and remove her from gubernatorial politicking. For his part, Speaker Madigan on Tuesday forwarded to Sangamon County State's Attorney John Schmidt a dossier on Burris's January Illinois House testimony and his subsequent additional affidavit. Impeachment panel ranking Republican Jim Durkin has demanded Burris's resignation and a special election.

Burris said repeatedly yesterday that he is open to the official probes, which now provide him a basis on which to quit contact with reporters. "I will cooperate in any way I can," he said. "I have nothing to hide."

Calling his incipient Senate career "the honor of my lifetime," Burris cited his 30 years of public service with no link to scandal. "I am new in D.C.," Burris said. Citing "misinformation in the media," he continued, "I am not known there. But you know Roland Burris. I have a record in Illinois. I am the real Roland."

Burris presented his latest formulation about the underlying facts crisply. "One, yes: I told people I wanted to serve. Friends and media and anyone who would listen. Two, no: I did not have conversations about my appointment with anyone but the governor's attorney. Three, yes: The governor's brother reached out to me. I did not give a single dollar to the Governor."

Burris said he has never asked for anything in return for his public service -- until now: "Stop the rush to judgment."

Official Democratic displeasure with Burris has been evident since the ill-fated Governor surprised the state and the nation with his appointment of Illinois' first African-American statewide officeholder. Burris, out of office since January 1995, had settled into a quiet obscurity punctuated by some lobbying work and occasional testimonials for his barrier-breaking career.

Burris's political challenges were illustrated by an e-column released during his talk revealing that Chicago Urban League CEO Cheryle Jackson is considering a primary run against him. Jackson, 44, is an attractive and articulate force in Chicago's civil rights and business communities, who is credited with bringing new life to her organization.

With contenders such as Jackson, Giannoulias, and even perhaps Attorney General Madigan orbiting his Senate seat, Burris may wonder how an improbable appointment to one of his dream positions had gone so far wrong so quickly.

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About the Author

Chris Robling is a former Chicago commissioner of elections.