Senators Turn Burris Away at Capitol

Roland Burris made significant progress in attaining the vacant Illinois Senate seat this week after meeting with Senate leaders and testifying before the Illinois House impeachment committee to defend his Senate appointment by embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Blocked from claiming a Senate seat, a man who once said his success in politics was the result of "divine intervention" stood outside the Capitol yesterday and declared: "Members of the media, my name is Roland Burris, the junior senator from the state of Illinois."

The 71-year-old former state attorney general had pressed his case over the objections of Senate Democrats and the man he would replace, President-elect Barack Obama, but instead found himself holding a news conference on the lawn outside the Capitol just minutes before new senators were sworn in. The man who has already had his own mausoleum constructed in Illinois showed no signs of backing down.

"He thinks he's got a shot, and he's an ambitious guy with a large ego," said Don Rose, a political consultant in Chicago who has known Burris since the 1960s. "I'm not sure that separates him from anybody in the Senate. . . . He's paid a lot of dues, and he may feel he's paid his dues."

Burris's single-minded push may yet succeed. Senate Democrats, once sharply opposed to allowing Burris to be seated because he was appointed by embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), are now considering allowing him to serve as a way to end a confrontation that could drag on for weeks and distract from what they hope will be an end to a decade of gridlock on Capitol Hill. One idea being considered, Democratic officials said, is allowing Burris to be seated if he agrees not to run for election in 2010, allowing the party to recruit another candidate to defend the seat (Burris has lost multiple statewide races in Illinois).

Sen. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) plan to meet with Burris today on Capitol Hill, and the two leaders are undoubtedly eager to defuse a situation in which their resistance to the appointment could alienate black voters.

The Congressional Black Caucus, meanwhile, will hold internal discussions about whether it should put its weight behind Burris's bid to be seated. Two of the most prominent African Americans in the House -- Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who had aspired to the Senate seat, and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) -- both said yesterday that they think the law stands behind Burris, who would replace Obama as the only African American member of the Senate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) broke ranks to back Burris yesterday afternoon.

Despite being selected by Blagojevich, who is under investigation on corruption charges that include allegations that he sought to sell Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder, Burris has said in recent days that he will accept no compromise that would limit his rights as a senator. He called his appointment "what the Lord has ordained," and his visit to the Capitol suggested Burris would let nothing stop him from adding "U.S. senator" to the list of accomplishments on his mausoleum in Chicago.

But Burris shunned confrontation yesterday, despite the impasse over the seat. With several advisers in tow, including former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Burris was denied the privileges given to senators and was required to go through a metal detector at the visitors' entrance to the Capitol. The senator-designate hugged the man in charge of making sure he would not enter the Senate chamber, Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer, whom he has known for years from their mutual time in Illinois politics.

Denied what he believed was his rightful place, Burris headed to the third-floor office of Nancy Erickson, the Senate secretary. After a 20-minute meeting with Erickson, who was appointed this week by the same Senate Democratic leaders opposing his selection, Burris calmly walked out of the Capitol, speaking for fewer than 30 seconds before deferring to attorney Timothy Wright. The Senate, Burris told reporters, had rejected his request to be seated because the Illinois secretary of state has refused to sign his certificate of appointment, a decision Burris is contesting in the Illinois Supreme Court.

"I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation," the Chicago lobbyist said softly. "I will now consult with my attorneys, and we will determine what our next step will be."

The showdown with his fellow Democrats is perhaps the only path left for Burris to attain his long-held ambitions. Born in the small town of Centralia in southern Illinois, he has said he worked as a teenager to integrate a local swimming pool, igniting an interest in politics that inspired him to become a lawyer.

"People said I was either crazy or divinely directed. I accept the latter," he told the Chicago Sun-Times during one of his runs for governor. "I believe without a doubt that I am predestined to be a role model."

After serving as a political appointee in state government, Burris became the first African American elected statewide in Illinois, as comptroller in 1979. He ran for the U.S. Senate, Chicago mayor and three times for governor over the next 25 years, but he did not win the Democratic primary in any of those races.

His service as comptroller and later as attorney general was viewed as competent but unspectacular. Rose, the Chicago political consultant, said Burris struggled in elections because of a flat speaking style and lack of charisma that prevented him not only from connecting with white voters but also from garnering the kind of support among African Americans that he needed to win statewide, even though many black politicians have backed his campaigns, including Obama and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

"He's not a vigorous politician," Rose said. "He's almost anti-charismatic."

Through his defeats, Burris remained confident that he had political talent, at times blaming his losses on his race while promising he would not abandon his pursuit of the higher office he said was his destiny.

After his last primary defeat in 2002, however, he pronounced himself done with electoral politics. And as Obama rose, Burris seemed content that he had paved the way for the achievements of other black politicians who followed.

"I'd say if there hadn't been a Roland Burris, there would not have been a Carol Braun or a Barack Obama," Burris told the Associated Press last year. "I had to lay the groundwork . . . to perform in a high, statewide office."

But seeing an opening last month, Burris suggested to Blagojevich that he be appointed to Obama's vacant seat.

He has plunged into an all-out campaign for the job since, making a steady stream of television appearances to push his candidacy and shrugging off the absence of an army of high-profile supporters. While longtime advisers, such as former top political adviser and current business partner Fred Lebed, are aiding him, Blagojevich and Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) are essentially the only big names behind his push. While several Black Caucus members have said Burris's claim to and qualifications for the appointment are legitimate, they have so far done little done to pressure Reid or Durbin.

"He's always had an ambition to be in public service," said Williams Cousins Jr., a longtime Burris friend, "and this would be the height of it for him. No one likes Blagojevich, but [Burris] has no responsibility to back down."

Staff writers Dana Milbank and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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