New Revelations Place Burris Back In Hot Seat
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And now, an important update in the story involving Illinois Senator Roland Burris. Yesterday, Senator Burris belatedly acknowledged he did try to raise campaign funds for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. The former governor was impeached and removed from office last month after state lawmakers concluded that he had attempted to profit from filling President Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.
Burris was appointed to the Senate by Blagojevich over the objections of Senate majority leader and Senate Democrats, who concluded that any appointment made by Blagojevich would be tainted after he was arrested on suspicion of trying to essentially sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Joining me to talk about the latest twist and turns in the story are NPR's political editor Ken Rudin; former Chicago alderman Dick Simpson, who now teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago; and Laura Washington, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. She's also a professor at DePaul University in Chicago. Welcome everyone. Thanks for joining us.
KEN RUDIN: Hi, Michel.
Dr. DICK SIMPSON (Former Chicago Alderman; Political Science, University of Illinois, Chicago): Glad to be here.
Prof. LAURA WASHINGTON (Media-Related Issues, DePaul University; Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): Pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: Let me start with some remarks by Senator Burris at a press conference this past Sunday.
(Soundbite of press conference with Roland Burris)
Senator ROLAND BURRIS (Democrat, Illinois): Yes. I had contact with representatives and friends of the former governor about the Senate seat, none of it inappropriate.
MARTIN: Ken, start us off. Does this - I hear - someone is laughing here. Does this contradict what he said earlier, or did he simply - did he say he had not had these contacts earlier, or did he simply fail to disclose that he had these contacts?
RUDIN: There are four variations of what Senator Burris has said, and all four have previously contradicted what he said before that. He first signed a sworn affidavit that he had no contacts at all with any representative of Governor Blagojevich in conversations about seeking the Senate seat. Then he said, well, maybe, yes, I did, I did speak to a former chief of staff.
And then we found out that - the supplemental affidavit that he submitted saying that, well, actually, I did speak to the governor. And then it turned out that he actually offered to raise money for the governor, of course, part of the old pay-for-play thing which was derided and which he swore to lawmakers, both in Washington and in Springfield, that that was not the case. So everything he said seems to have contradicted what he said before.
MARTIN: And could you just clarify, how did this come out - that these contacts come out, not because of filing or did he - in conversation, what happened?
RUDIN: Well, actually, Burris himself mentioned it to reporters in Peoria, and a lot of people are speculating - he denies this, but there's speculation that the reason these things are suddenly coming out is because there are recorded conversations between Blagojevich's brother and Senator Burris, and perhaps Burris felt that coming out in front of it will, you know, take some of the heat off him.
MARTIN: Laura Washington, it's always hard to assess other people's motives. But why would Burris, who is an experienced politician, why would he pursue the seat under these circumstances? And, you know, wouldn't he anticipate that at some point, these contacts would come out? I just - I find it puzzling.
Prof. WASHINGTON: Right. Well, he wanted this seat really, really bad. He saw this opportunity as the capstone to his career, and especially in the last few days, he's repeatedly talked about all the entrees he made to Rod Blagojevich, to Rod Blagojevich's associates, to friends, to people who - you know, to many, many people to get this seat.
The reason that he has not come forward appears to be, I think, because - I mean, again, you can't get inside someone's head, but I believe he was worried that he would not get the seat. Remember, there was a lot of controversy, as Ken pointed out. The Senate leadership was against this at the beginning because of the taint that Blagojevich brought to the appointment, so he felt - I would guess that if he thought if he was as forthcoming as he should have been about the contacts, about who he talked to, about the fact that he had actually done some fundraising or attempted to do some fundraising, that that would've jettisoned his appointment.
So I guess he just thought he was - he'd take his chances, and I think you're right. There are - some people believe that when he realized that some of these conversations might have been caught on tape, he felt it was better to come clean. His argument that he was just simply trying to set the record straight, though, I think, doesn't really fly because there were so much - first of all, because he was so evasive in the beginning, but then there was such a long period, almost a month between the time he first, made his first statement on January 5th, and when he came forward and finally said, yes, I did have contacts. It makes you wonder what was going on that entire month.
MARTIN: And Dick Simpson, same question to you. You know Roland Burris. And what's your take on this?
Dr. SIMPSON: Well, he seemed to be trying to, as Laura suggested, get ahead of the revelations from the federal prosecutor that some conversations were taped. Besides simply talking to reporters, he sent, almost a week and a half ago, a revised testimony to the State Legislative Committee that was undergoing the impeachment debate with Governor Blagojevich.
But even when he amended it, he didn't do a full job of doing a correct amendment. Essentially, he was still withholding information, which comes very close to lying. And now, he is facing a perjury charge in the county where our capital is, in Springfield, and now an ethics investigation from the Senate.
MARTIN: How is his explanation playing, Dick Simpson?
Dr. SIMPSON: Well, it's playing very badly. Even columnists and others who had supported his case earlier now feel betrayed, and feel like, that he wasn't honest. And even they're calling for him to resign. It's unlikely he's going to resign, but the Senate has several times thrown out people over things like this, as late as 1995 with Robert Packwood, and back in 1981 with Harrison Williams.
And perhaps the most famous case from Illinois in 1912, the Senate threw out William Lorimer, who was the senator from Illinois, for bribing the members of the state legislature to elect him, back before we had direct elections of senators.
MARTIN: Ken Rudin, what about that? How are the Senate Democrats responding to this? Remember that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid resisted Burris's appointment, as we discussed, because...
RUDIN: As did Dick Durbin, the other senator from Illinois, right?
MARTIN: Dick Durbin. Because there was a feeling that if Blagojevich was involved, there had to be a problem. So how are they responding to this latest information?
RUDIN: Well, I think that - first of all, they're disillusioned, and they're upset. And they'd - Illinois is one word they would not likely to have heard. It's a four-letter word they would not like to have heard again this year. But officially, they're saying, we'll let the investigation go forward. The Senate Ethics Committee under Barbara Boxer is going to begin investigations. As Dick Simpson said, there's going to be investigation in Springfield.
But ultimately, I suspect that - I hate to bring the subject up, but as the only African-American in the Senate I would be very, very surprised if they removed him. Dick Simpson mentioned others like Bob Packwood, Harrison Williams, people like that. I suspect that if anything, there'll be a serious censure, and either Burris doesn't run in the March 2010 primary, or he runs anyway and gets creamed, but I suspect it will not be an expulsion.
MARTIN: Laura Washington, what about that? Do you think that, how can I put this, that his race inoculates him in some way from the criticism that would attend to someone else because he's the only African-American currently serving in the Senate?
Prof. WASHINGTON: Well, I can understand why Ken would be, you know, would says he hates to bring it up because race is always such thorny issue. But the undercurrent race has been present in this case since Blagojevich made the appointment. Many people believed he made the appointment because he was trying to curry favor with African-American voters and possibly with an African-American or African-Americans in the jury pool.
Roland Burris was able to successfully push aside the reservations about his appointment with the help of people like Bobby Rush, a prominent African-American congressman, who came strongly out in his defense. And there was - there appeared to be at least a perception that there was a strong sentiment in the black community to make sure that he was seated. Today...
MARTIN: Can I just interrupt, though, Laura?
Prof. WASHINGTON: Yes.
MARTIN: But part of the predicate of their support was that he hadn't done anything wrong.
Prof. WASHINGTON: Absolutely.
MARTIN: That he had not had any of these contacts with Blagojevich. And so, that was kind of the stated reason. So, I wonder, now that it's been demonstrated that he did have these contacts, whether their support would be the same.
Prof. WASHINGTON: Well, so far, the black political class in town has been largely silent. You haven't heard from the Bobby Rushes, and you haven't heard from some of the prominent pastors who were out there stumping for him previously. I was on black radio, on WBON black radio station the other day, and there was a lot of strong sentiment from the callers to say give the guy a break, he didn't really lie. You know, leave him alone, this is a racial attack on him.
Because I think there is still a strong sentiment in the black community to keep the seat, but how strong that is in terms of supporting Roland Burris in that seat remains be seen. I think the big headline for Roland Burris at the end is that yes, he may not resign, but I think he's going to be under extreme pressure by people like Dick Durbin and Harry Reid to agree not to run for re-election in 2010, which I think he had planned to do, because he is so tainted now that the Democratic Party doesn't want to have this kind of a - individual as their nominee.
MARTIN: Dick Simpson, what about the impact on the larger Democratic Party? You just heard Laura Washington say that there just seems no chance that he could retain the seat if he were to run as - she thinks he probably wanted to run, but what about the Democratic Party in general, can they field a candidate? I know it's early, it's always hard to speculate, you know, a year out, but what do you think?
Dr. SIMPSON: The Democrats could easily win the seat, but they couldn't win it with Roland Burris. The other thing to say about it is, he will be removed, probably, from the Senate only if he is shown to have actually perjured himself. If he simply is able to dance around and say that he didn't tell the whole truth, that he didn't remember, he got confused by the questions, and he isn't at least indicted on perjury, the Senate will censor him and not remove him. I think they need a very strong case.
It is true that if he were to run now in 2010, he would come in last on the ballot. One quick television ad showing him next to Rod Blagojevich, and then saying - repeating what he said in these various revelations would be enough to defeat anyone.
MARTIN: Ken Rudin, finally, this is a very crucial time in Congress. There is a tremendous amount of important legislation, important issues before this body. How effective can he really be?
RUDIN: Well, I think his effectiveness is definitely over. What really irks the Democrats is that Barack Obama still has this honeymoon. He's still trying to get things accomplished. The last thing he wants, as was the case when the seat was first up for grabs or up for offer - for auction - by Blagojevich, the last thing he wants is a distraction coming from Illinois. And that's what he's got. But again, he's out there pushing his auto bailout, his home-foreclosure solutions, and things like that. A scandal from his hometown is not what he wants to have.
Dr. SIMPSON: But it is true, also, he was the 60th vote that passed the bailout package - the stimulus package - that just went through. The Democrats can't afford at the moment to lose any votes.
RUDIN: And that's why so badly they need Al Franken in Minnesota.
MARTIN: Well, it's interesting that Al Franken is no longer the punch line to the joke. Dick Simpson, final thought, we only have about 30 seconds left. I've asked Laura Washington, what do you think his motivation was in presenting himself in this way. Do you have any thoughts about that, as a person who knows him?
Dr. SIMPSON: I think he was simply trying to get selected, and he was trying to do a very delicate dance and was under pressure in hearing, and he let himself hide too much. He should have been much more forthcoming, and then he would have had no problems.
MARTIN: MARTIN: Dick Simpson is a former Chicago alderman. He's a professor now at the University of Illinois in Chicago. We were also pleased to be joined by Laura Washington. She's a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett professor at DePaul University. She joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago, And Ken Rudin joined us also. He's NPR's political editor. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thanks to all of you.
RUDIN: Thank you, Michel.
Dr. SIMPSON: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.