Clouds Gather Over Roland Burris

Sen. Roland Burris, center, arrives for a luncheon at the City Club of Chicago, where he told the crowd: "I have absolutely nothing to hide."
Sen. Roland Burris, center, arrives for a luncheon at the City Club of Chicago, where he told the crowd: "I have absolutely nothing to hide." (By Charles Rex Arbogast -- Associated Press)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

CHICAGO, Feb. 18 -- A slight man elegantly dressed in a navy overcoat and knotted red tie, Sen. Roland W. Burris (D-Ill.) stepped onto a downtown street Wednesday, only to be instantly dwarfed by a horde of cameramen and reporters.

"Senator, are you going to resign?" they called, microphones and recorders in hand. "Do you have anything to say?"

Burris remained for a moment a silent witness to a political drama largely of his own making. The junior U.S. senator who thought he was crowning his pioneering career with a position at the political pinnacle finds himself fighting to save both his job and his reputation.

His harsh welcome outside the City Club of Chicago was not what he intended when he scheduled a five-day journey designed as part listening tour, part victory lap for the first African American elected to statewide office in Illinois, and now President Obama's successor.

Plans were made before the revelation of his conflicting words about his contacts with Gov. Rod Blagojevich's inner circle and the opening of two investigations into statements Burris made under oath. That was before his image as a straight shooter began to fade, threatening the legacy of a man so confident that he arranged to have his political accomplishments chiseled into the stone of his future mausoleum.

"I ask you today to stop the rush to judgment. You know the real Roland. I've done nothing wrong. I have absolutely nothing to hide," Burris told the City Club gathering, his voice rising. "I have a history with you, a record that I've built over a lifetime. Thirty years in public life and never a hint of a scandal."

Just weeks after Blagojevich became a national punch line with his frenetic round of television interviews as the Illinois Senate was throwing him out of office, Burris is becoming the reluctant star of a public sideshow of his own. The post he first sought in 1984 may be in jeopardy.

When the news broke on Dec. 9 that Blagojevich was under arrest, accused of trying to sell Obama's Senate seat, the FBI counted six candidates in the prospective pay-to-play scheme.

None of them was Burris, an amiable second-tier politician and former accountant and banker who sometimes practiced law. At 71, with his most recent victory in 1990 and four defeats since then, he seemed long retired from the rough-and-tumble.

He was still dreaming of the big-time, however, and he spoke to anyone he thought might help him: politicians, lobbyists, high school classmates from Centralia, Ill., friends of all stripes. And, as it turned out, Blagojevich's brother and at least four of his close advisers.

"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 received the call from Blagojevich on Dec. 28, although Obama, the entire 50-member Illinois Senate Democratic caucus and the state's political establishment had warned the governor that any appointment would be tainted.

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