IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Roland W. Burris — a low-key groundbreaker

Image: Roland Burris
Former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris on Tuesday in Chicago.Scott Olson / Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

In Illinois, where politics ranks among the dramatic arts (sometimes the theater of the absurd), Roland W. Burris has long been seen as steady, deliberate, even boring.

For all his accomplishments — he was the first African-American elected to statewide office in Illinois, as comptroller and later as attorney general — Mr. Burris, a former tax accountant and bank examiner, has never quite been regarded as a political star.

“Very, very low key,” said Don Rose, a former Democratic political consultant in Chicago, describing Mr. Burris, 71, who was named on Tuesday by the state’s embattled governor, Rod R. Blagojevich, to fill the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. “He’s just not a terribly exciting figure. But there’s never been a breath of scandal about him.”

In Washington, leaders of the Senate have vowed to reject any replacement named by Mr. Blagojevich, who was arrested Dec. 9 on charges that he tried to solicit bribes for the empty seat. The Illinois Legislature has initiated steps to impeach Mr. Blagojevich, but he has signaled his intention to fight back.

Choice makes sense
The selection of Mr. Burris jolted the Illinois political world, but also made some sense. Some African-American politicians in Illinois, and elsewhere, have called for an African-American to fill the seat in the Senate, which will otherwise be without a black member. Mr. Burris, despite being on a losing streak in his last several elections, still commands considerable respect for breaking racial barriers in the state’s politics.

In a city famous for soaring oratory, from the likes of Mr. Obama and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others, Mr. Burris is known instead as a numbers cruncher. But his ambition for higher office has scarcely been any secret.

Mr. Burris has run unsuccessfully for the Senate, for mayor of Chicago, and three times for governor, including a bid against Mr. Blagojevich for the Democratic nomination in 2002. He owns a space at a mausoleum on the city’s South Side, where a wall is inscribed with some of his political achievements, but leaves space for more.

A native of Centralia, a small town in downstate Illinois, Mr. Burris was born on Aug. 8, 1937, the son of a laborer for the Illinois Central Railroad. He received his bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University, and later earned a law degree from Howard University.

After working as a bank examiner, he was named to a state budget post in the early 1970s by Gov. Dan Walker, who ultimately went to prison after being convicted for corruption. Mr. Burris served briefly in 1977 as executive director of Operation Push, the civil rights organization founded by Mr. Jackson. Mr. Burris was the state’s comptroller from 1979 to 1991, and was the state’s attorney general from 1991 to 1995. In recent years, he has worked as a political consultant.

Running for state attorney general in 1990, Mr. Burris made his strong support for abortion rights a cornerstone of his race against the Republican, Jim Ryan, an abortion opponent who was regarded as a formidable candidate. While in office, Mr. Burris aligned with the liberal wing of the state’s Democratic Party, supporting abortion rights and broader rights for gay men and lesbians.

Not 'one iota of taint'
Mr. Burris was said to have campaigned for the Senate seat, but his name was rarely mentioned among the serious contenders. He said Tuesday that he had talked on Sunday with Mr. Blagojevich, who asked if he would take the position.

At the news conference, Representative Bobby L. Rush, Democrat of Illinois, who has long been regarded as a champion among African-Americans in Chicago, delivered a strong endorsement of Mr. Burris, describing him as a politician who “has not in 40 years had one iota of taint” of wrongdoing.

Republicans in the state expressed astonishment that Mr. Blagojevich would name a replacement for the seat, but they nonetheless held their fire when it came to Mr. Burris, a politician who seems to have few vocal enemies.

Judy Baar Topinka, the Republican who ran against Mr. Blagojevich in 2006, described Mr. Burris as “a man who genuinely cares for the state of Illinois.”

Ms. Topinka expressed concern that Mr. Burris could become a pawn in a fight in Washington. State Representative Tom Cross, the Republican leader, meanwhile, emphasized that his party’s indignation about Mr. Blagojevich’s action was “not about Roland Burris.”

Some political experts said the governor had made a shrewd choice in Mr. Burris, and Mr. Rose predicted that the Senate would have a difficult time rejecting him.

“The U.S. Senate,” Mr. Rose said, “is going to be put in the worst kind of guilt-by-association situation” if Mr. Burris is rejected simply on the ground that he was named by Mr. Blagojevich.

“I’d say Burris has at least an even chance of being seated,” Mr. Rose said. “And then I think he’ll run again. This is the sort of thing he’s always wanted.”

This story, Roland W. Burris, a Low-Key Groundbreaker, originally appeared in the New York Times.