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Get Used to Senator Roland Burris: He’s Here Until January 2011—Thanks Dick Durbin; Thanks Pat Quinn

Carol Felsenthal 4 March 2009 5 Comments

I have written a lot about Roland W. Burris—the petite man with the jumbo ego– since that day in late December when now impeached Gov. Blagojevich made dopes of Democratic leaders locally and nationally by appointing the hapless, shameless Burris to Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat.

Burris isn’t going anywhere. With  a group of African American ministers and the  Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus threatening white politicians who try to force out the U.S. Senate’s only black member, the flexible spines of Dick Durbin and Pat Quinn—at various times both called for special elections and then backed down–quickly curved (again).

Will Burris run for a full term in 2010 when Obama’s term ends?  Perhaps.  Anyone who has watched what Dick Durbin at one point called a “burlesque,”   knows that Burris, 71, the former state comptroller and attorney general,  might be delusional enough, tone deaf enough, blindly ambitious enough to run.

Several weeks ago I thought that I might write a detailed profile of Burris; I’m leaning against doing that now because he seems too one-dimensional.  Good profile subjects need not be admirable—some of the best are scoundrels– but they must be complex.  Burris is all ego all the time.

That ego—he wanted that Senate seat no matter what — might explain how  his son,  Roland II, 42, got soiled by his father’s mess; landing in front-page headlines, in the glare of investigations and the cacophony of scorn.
Burris II, who earned his law degree at Northwestern, was a founding partner in 2002 of a minority-owned law firm, Burris, Wright, Slaughter & Tom. The firm’s web site  described him as “a specialist in urban real estate development law.”  He is, as of September 2008, an employee of  a state agency, the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA),  run by appointees of Blagojevich.

The Wright in the aforementioned law firm is Timothy Wright III, the  imposing man who hovers over Burris I at press conferences,  whispering  instructions in his client’s ear. Something about the presence of Wright—a  member of Harold Washington’s  administration– always makes  Burris I seem even smaller and more  befuddled.

In 2007, Burris, Wright, Slaughter & Tom merged with Gonzalez, Saggio and Harlan, which is headquartered in Milwaukee and which bills itself as  “one of the largest minority-owned law firms in the nation.”   Of the four founding partners, Tom and Wright are partners in the  merged firm’s Chicago office.  Slaughter moved to another Chicago law firm.

Burris II is apparently out of the practice of private law.  He  serves as “senior counsel” in IDHA’s  legal department, counseling people in foreclosure, despite having been foreclosed, three weeks before he received that job offer,  on his own Bronzeville home, and six weeks before having a $34,163 tax lien  placed on that home for failure to pay taxes for 2004, 2005, 2007.

The senior Burris  had used his nephew’s job hunt in state government as cover for himself—that’s why he was calling Blagojevich’s  people, he claimed.  But Burris didn’t mention during the run-up to his being seated that his son had landed the $75,000 state job. Guess he forgot, just as he neglected to tell the state impeachment committee about conversations he had with Blago’s brother and other top aides.

“A spokeswoman for the Illinois Housing Development Authority,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported, “indicated … there was nothing improper [about Burris II’s] employment by the agency, whose mission includes overseeing mortgage programs for low-income home buyers and anti-foreclosure initiatives.”

Pat Quinn said the hiring of Burris II  “deserves some serious review,” adding that he  has asked his chief of staff and top lawyer to investigate.  Given Quinn’s fear of losing support in the African American community when he runs for Governor in 2010, don’t expect a report any time soon.
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Here’s a few nuggets about the rest of the family: Roland  Burris and his wife Berlean raised their two children, Roland II and Rolanda,  in the South Side’s Chatham neighborhood, in the house on Green Avenue in which gospel great Mahalia Jackson once lived.

Both  mother and daughter hold PhDs in education—Rolanda’s from Northern Illinois University and Berlean’s from Northwestern.  Rolanda, who lives in Evanston,  is Director of Academic Assistance and ADA compliance officer at Judson University in Elgin  Berlean, who also has a master’s in nursing from the University of Illinois,  was associate provost at National-Louis University.  (During her time there, the University awarded a LLD, an honorary degree, to none other than Attorney General Roland W. Burris )

Married to Burris  for 47 years, Berlean,  one of 13 children from Rulesville, in the  Mississippi Delta, once expressed irritation to reporters from the Chicago Tribune that people think of her as her husband’s  appendage.  “I have a Ph.D from Northwestern, and I have my own credentials, and yet consistently throughout my professional career, I have been labeled as being where I am because of my husband. My husband’s had nothing to do with it.”

She also told a Sun-Times reporter, “Roland was an old man when I met him.”  She meant old in temperament, and added, . “He’s serious, but he knows how to have fun.”

In  2007,  Roland I insisted to a Tribune reporter  that it was his wife, not he, who named  the children Roland and Rolanda. “Their mother named them, it’s not my ego” he insisted. (I asked in one of my earlier posts on Burris if he had any grandchildren and,  if he did,  were they also named Roland.  Burris II. and his wife, Marty, have two children—Roland Theodore Burris and younger brother, Ian Alexander Burris.)

Along the same lines as, “My wife made me name my daughter Rolanda,” is Burris I’s  recent explanation to Chicago Tribune reporter Jill Zuckman of how the embarrassing “TRAIL BLAZER” tombstone came to be.
“As for his résumé chiseled in granite, Burris said, “that wasn’t me. The cemetery in Oak Woods insisted when I went out to plan my estate that my résumé be put on it. That wasn’t me. That was the manager of the funeral home …. [He] said, ‘Mr. Burris, your accomplishments are too many to let them not be known to young people.’ And he convinced my wife and I that that’s what should be done,” he said. “I questioned it and my wife questioned it, and we knew there would be that type of reaction, but we said we would be willing to overcome the cynicism of the press in order to let it be known for future generations.”

Burris I is indeed the first African American to win a state-wide constitutional office—comptroller in 1978; attorney general in 1990–but he has also suffered many defeats: coming in 5th in 1968 in a race for a  seat in the Illinois House; losing to Paul Simon in the U.S. Senate primary in 1984; running for Mayor of Chicago as an independent and losing badly (61-to 35 percent) to Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1995, losing the primary for governor in 1994 to  Dawn Clark Netsch; in 1998 to Glenn Poshard, in 2002 to Rod Blagojevich.

The news coverage of Roland Burris has certain themes—he’s short on  charisma; long on longevity,  but his accomplishments in office are so modest it’s difficult for even his supporters to articulate them.  He’s  also short on strong convictions, except the conviction that Roland Burris—his penchant for talking about  himself in the third person dates back decades– wants to win office and add to the list of firsts on his tombstone.

That being said, another constant in coverage of Burris up until that sad day when he stood next to Blagojevich and accepted the senate appointment was that Roland Burris was untouched by scandal; that his  integrity was in tact.  And that is the saddest part of this story.

In a 1993 profile, Chicago Tribune political writer Thomas Hardy described Burris as, a man who “does not laugh often. He is an intense, tightly wound man who catalogs the smallest slights to his political or professional stature, often quietly attributing them to racism. His political antenna is incessantly probing the horizon for controversy, which he strives to avoid at all cost.”

But in that same profile Hardy also noted: “In 20 years,  Burris has been untainted by scandal.”

When Burris was inaugurated for his first term as comptroller in 1979, he said that he had stopped that morning at  the Lincoln tomb in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. “It was quiet, and I was alone with Mr. Lincoln.  And I wondered, ‘Can he see me? Does he know who I am? Does he know what’s taking place today in his Illinois?’ And as I stood there in that quiet place of eternal rest, amidst the snow and the monuments to the past, I knew what his answer was: ‘Yes I can see you. I know who you are. And I am pleased at what is taking place in Illinois today. In my beloved Springfield.”‘

Hmmm, one can only wonder if Senator Burris has had any further conversations with Lincoln, and what the former President had to say about  the state of his state today.

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Carol Felsenthal is a regular contributor to the Chicago Daily Observer

5 Comments »

  • letsgetreal said:

    A very thoughtful piece- this IS a profile- and not a very pretty one.

    Burris reflects ego wtihout pride, a title vulture. I question whether as the only African-American in the US Senate, he will do much to speak for the African-American point of view or for the people of Illinois for that matter.

  • Jim Merriner said:

    I admire Ms. Felsenthal as a writer and I hope she will excuse my picking a nit. Burris likely will be gone shortly before January 2011. He was appointed to serve, not until January 2011, but until he is replaced. He presumably will be replaced in the November 2010 election. That senator-elect would be sworn in early, before January 2011, incidentally gaining a slight edge in seniority.

  • Roger A. Keats said:

    As always, Carol Felsenthal is interesting and thoughtful. But remember who gets the last laugh. Roland Burris is still the Senator and will be a formidable contender in 2010 if it isn’t a 1 on 1 race. Right now his main opponent appears to be the state treasurer with known ties to the mob! I’ll take Roland over a man who admitted he had ties to the mob! Remember the voters of Illlinois knew Blagojevich was ethically challenged when they reelected him in 2006. Is it Burris’ fault that the voters left him (or anyone) no choice but to deal with an ethically challenged governor? This is what is so great about elective politics. We all get to talk, but eventually people vote and we get an answer. As a Republican I haven’t liked the answers the last 2 election cycles, but based on the performance of George Bush and Dennis Hastert, we got what we deserved!
    Roger Keats

  • Carol Felsenthal said:

    See this Washington Post link for Burris’s 2010 plans:

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/sleuth/2009/03/looks_like_embattled_and_defia.html

    I just left a comment on that site to clarify/amplify some of the reporter’s points.

    carol felsenthal

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