by Jamey Dunn
From age 16 to 71, one thing has remained constant about Roland Burris: his ambition to hold high political office. As a sophomore in high school, Burris set two life goals, one to become a lawyer and one to hold a statewide office. He now serves in a position that typically is filled through a statewide election, but Burris’ ascension to the U.S. Senate was anything but typical. After being in office for less than two months, he is facing two separate investigations, many have called for his resignation and plans for a special election to replace him may be in the works.
Burris was appointed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has since been impeached and removed from office for, among other things, allegations that he tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama for campaign contributions or personal gain. The ensuing media frenzy put every aspect of Burris’ appointment under scrutiny and exposed new details about his contacts with the former governor.
Throughout his career, Burris has been accused of being highly ambitious and having a healthy ego. He often is asked about his mausoleum, which already has his résumé and the words “TRAIL BLAZER” carved on it. He told Illinois Statehouse reporters that he has been a probate attorney who guided other people in preparing for the end of life, so he should be prepared, too.
Critics say his ambition also affected his job performance.
Mike Lawrence, former press secretary for then-Gov. Jim Edgar, says Burris was a good comptroller, but he did not seem to have the same enthusiasm for the office of attorney general. Rather, Lawrence says, Burris, who was the Democratic attorney general during Edgar’s Republican administration, may have treated the position as a steppingstone for his 1994 gubernatorial run, the first of three bids for governor.
A former assistant attorney general to Burris, Mary Brigid Hayes, resigned in protest rather than try an appealed case that she felt had been improperly handled the first time around. She says Burris refused to speak to her when she attempted to bring to his attention several mistakes a prosecutor had made in a capital punishment case. Hayes acknowledges she originally took the job in Burris’ office, in part, because of her own ambition to try a case before the Illinois Supreme Court. But she says it was Burris’ desire to become governor that made him ignore her suspicion that an innocent man might be on Death Row.
The defendant in that case, Rolando Cruz, later was exonerated by DNA evidence, which helped to prompt former Gov. George Ryan to instate a moratorium on the death penalty and call for reforms to the system. Hayes says she thinks Burris ignored her for political reasons because freeing a man from Death Row might have seemed as if he wasn’t “tough on crime.” She even wrote an opinion piece for the Chicago Tribune after Burris was appointed U.S. senator. “I don’t think it is fair at all to say that Burris’ career has been without controversy,” she says.
The most recent controversy started more than a month after Blagojevich was removed from office, when Burris submitted an affidavit to the Illinois House Special Investigative Committee. That affidavit added new details about his appointment. In January, Burris testified to the House committee that he spoke with Lon Monk, a close friend of Blagojevich, about his interest in the U.S. Senate seat. In a second affidavit, submitted February 4, he said that Rob Blagojevich, the governor’s brother, called him three times soliciting fundraising help. Burris said in his affidavit that he did not give any money or assistance because “it could be viewed as an attempt to curry favor with him regarding his decision to appoint a successor to President Obama.” Burris added that he discussed his interest in the Senate seat with at least three other Blagojevich insiders — Doug Scofield, John Harris and JohnWyma — between June and the November election.
Burris then went on to admit to reporters during his statewide listening tour in February that he had made attempts to raise money for former Gov. Blagojevich’s campaign after inquiring about the U.S. Senate seat. Burris told Rob Blagojevich in their second phone conversation that he did not find anyone who was interested in donating. He said he finally told the governor’s brother in their third conversation that he could not offer any fundraising help because he was interested in the appointment.
The new details sparked a perjury investigation by the Sangamon County state’s attorney and the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee, and several state lawmakers have introduced bills proposing a special election to replace him in the U.S. Senate, even if he doesn’t resign. Illinois Republicans, as well as Democrats such as Gov. Pat Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, have called for his resignation. Fellow U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin met with Burris on February 24 and advised him to resign. Calls for his resignation have since died down.
Durbin says Burris told him that he would not resign and that he is considering running for the seat in 2010.
If Burris is one thing, he is a persistent campaigner. He has run 11 times for various political positions, including three bids as governor, the last of which ended in a loss to Blagojevich during the 2002 Democratic primary.
In fact, Burris never made it out of a Democratic primary for governor or for U.S. senator. He ran as an independent when he challenged Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and lost in 1995.
With Burris refusing to step down, those who have said he should leave office have explored other options.
Attorney General Madigan issued a legal opinion on February 25 that said Burris’ appointment was temporary and that the General Assembly could hold a special election to replace him at any time. “A temporary appointee to the U.S. Senate has no right that prevents the General Assembly from passing legislation to enable the people to elect their U.S. senator,” she wrote. In short, her opinion states that nothing in the state or federal constitutions prohibits the General Assembly from changing the date of an election to choose a new U.S. senator.
But the first effort within the legislature to hold a special election already has been shot down in the Senate, indicating the idea is only finding serious support from Republicans and a few Democrats. Lawmakers opposing such legislation say that the estimated cost, starting at about $50 million, may be too much during an economic recession and state budget crisis.
One Democrat in support of a special election is Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock, who has proposed two special election bills. Franks, however, says he worries that if Burris files a lawsuit questioning the legality of holding an election, a long legal battle could ensue that would negate the whole issue. “We could be stuck in court for months. I’m sure we’d be in court longer then when the next election would be in February of 2010,” he says.
Franks’ measures also meet Democratic opposition in the House. Rep. Lou Lang, an assistant majority leader from Skokie, says the Democratic caucus is divided on the issue. “This is not about Mr. Burris. It’s about what we do with the laws in the state of Illinois. Rod Blagojevich, as unfortunate as it was, made a legal appointment of Mr. Burris while he was still governor.”
Burris seems to agree that the law is on his side, but one of his associates recently changed his mind. Political consultant John Ruff told the Chicago Sun-Times that he now regrets signing on as a co-plaintiff in a January lawsuit that was filed to help Burris become a senator. Ruff publicly apologized for his actions and said he suspects that “pay-to-play” politics led to Burris’ appointment. Ruff said that Fred Lebed, Burris’ former lobbying partner and political adviser, is covering up for Burris. Lebed told the Sun-Times that Ruff’s statements are false and that Ruff is trying to get revenge because Burris did not give him a job after becoming senator.
Many wonder whether Burris, despite being embroiled in political turmoil and investigations, will make a second bid for U.S. Senate in 2010.
He already faces challengers, who could have campaign fodder based on some of Burris’ past decisions. For instance, he may take heat for issuing a permit as comptroller to the Illinois Funeral Directors Association, allowing it to administer a trust for preplanned funerals. The value of the trust has been tanking, and funeral homes are suing the group for allegedly mismanaging it. State Comptroller Dan Hynes’ office says the permit never should have been issued. After leaving his job as comptroller, Burris was a lobbyist for the Illinois Funeral Directors Association.
Potential Democratic primary challengers include State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who has formed an exploratory committee for a campaign and has started fundraising. Other names reportedly in the mix include Cheryle Jackson, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Urban League and a former spokeswoman for Blagojevich; and Bill Daley, former U.S. commerce secretary and brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Republican Party leaders have dropped the name of U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk of Highland Park as a potential candidate.
Illinois Issues, March 2009