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.
Blagojevich had other ideas. In Burris, he found an unobjectionable nominee and essentially dared the U.S. Senate to try to block him. The Democratic leadership quickly folded, following a memorable scene in the rain outside the Capitol, where Burris reported that he had been turned away.
The new junior senator was going about his business, mostly without a staff, when news broke Saturday that he had filed a fresh affidavit with a new account of dealings with five Blagojevich associates. A pair of subsequent news conferences produced still more variations, each one more troubling than the last.
Burris has moved from a Jan. 5 assertion that he had no contact with Blagojevich or his representatives to an admission this week that he tried to raise money for the governor while seeking the Senate seat. He said he was unable to find anyone willing to give and soon abandoned the effort, concluding that it would be improper.
"He has put himself in a very bad position," said Kelley, who said he believes Burris is honest. "As smart as he is, relative to standing up there before the press . . . he doesn't do as well as I would like him to."
On Wednesday, while offering details and explanations not contained in his early accounts, Burris declared, "I will continue to be transparent."
"This is one of the worst periods of Roland Burris's public life," said Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who was considered for the Senate seat but opposed the idea of a Blagojevich appointment. He described Burris as "a straight shooter, a square dude, a person that many other people would kind of joke about in terms of his honesty."
"He's probably saying, 'How did this ever happen? How did I, Roland Burris, end up with people thinking that I may have been engaged in not revealing information, or some nefarious deal-making?' "
Republicans and Democrats maddened by the state's seemingly endless political drama have called on Burris to quit, as did the Chicago Tribune. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who wants the job, said Gov. Pat Quinn (D) should remove Burris under the 17th Amendment and call a special election.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Wednesday that Burris had not produced "the full disclosure under oath that we asked for." White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Burris was seated partly on the basis of early statements that he has since contradicted and that the people of Illinois "deserve to know the full extent of any involvement."
Laura Washington, a DePaul University professor and Chicago Sun-Times columnist, said that many African American politicians in Chicago have abandoned Burris, despite their early support when the Senate initially refused to seat him.
"The silence is deafening," she said. "There's a lot of outrage at Burris's lack of candor. I think he wanted this job really, really badly and basically spun the truth and shaved some things off the truth to get by."
Washington thinks that the rules have shifted in Illinois politics, and that Burris -- who says he did nothing improper by trying to raise money for Blagojevich while seeking the Senate seat -- was too slow to adjust.
"He could have gone out as being a revered, distinguished black officer," she said. "Instead, the last thing on that tombstone will be he didn't tell the truth when he should have."
Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.