Illinois Sen. Roland Burris Prepares Exit, Has No Regrets

Roland Burris filled the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. Burris announced in July 2009 that he would not seek election in 2010 to a full Senate term. Host Michel Martin speaks with the junior Senator from Illinois, the only African American in the upper chamber, as he prepares to leave the office.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

From Homeland Security to homeland politics on this election eve, while dozens of congressional incumbents try to convince voters they should be returned to office, Democratic Senator Roland Burris is ramping down. He's decided not to run for a full six-year term after serving in the seat vacated when President Obama won the White House.

So Senator Burris will head back to his home state of Illinois at the end of the current congressional term. Tomorrow, Illinois voters will decide whether he is replaced by Republican Mark Kirk or Democrat Alexi Giannoulias.

And we decided to talk to Senator Burris at this important time in his career. And he's with us now from his office in Washington. Thank you so much for joining us.

Senator ROLAND BURRIS (Democrat, Illinois): Michel, it's good to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, Senator Burris, that's not the only thing, I'm sure, that's significant about your term, but the fact is when you leave the chamber, you're the only African-American currently serving in the Senate. And barring some extraordinary circumstance in tomorrow's election, the chamber will once again be devoid of an African-American member once you depart. Do you think that that's a problem?

Sen. BURRIS: Well, it certainly is. We do have someone who's running in Florida and if you're to believe the polls, that the outcome does not look that good for Meek. But I'm just hoping that he hangs in there, that people of Florida would get the message that that gentleman who's representing him in Congress can certainly also represent the full state in the United States Senate.

There's another gentleman running in Georgia who's running for the United States Senate. I don't think his chance is - he's going against Isakson there in Georgia. But it will be something given that, you know, the population of America is 10 to 12 percent black Americans, we should have representation in the United States Senate. I'm hoping that the 113th Congress Senate will correct that.

MARTIN: And of course there's Alvin Greene in South Carolina who no one gives any chance to win.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Can I ask you, what do you think it says that the race for your seat is as tight as it now is?

Sen. BURRIS: Yeah, and that's because, Michel, money has come in on the Kirk side just unabashedly. It's embarrassing, the commercials people are just getting turned off with these negative commercials. But what the Carveral(ph) group is doing with the airwaves here in Illinois is just unprecedented. And it certainly is having some impact. But I'm pretty sure that the Democratic majority in Illinois will turn out and we will have a Democratic victory for Alexi Giannoulias, for our Governor Quinn and the whole Democratic ticket after tomorrow night.

MARTIN: Why are you so sure?

Sen. BURRIS: Well, because I've been around a long time. And I'm sure that they aren't polling the Hispanic community properly. They aren't polling the young people because they don't even have telephones. They operate now with cell phones. And so all these polls and things - I think this will be the biggest shock for those pollsters tomorrow night, with all this Republican, you know, earthquake Republican landslide. I don't think it's going to happen - across the country that they're predicting.

We're going to hold on to the House and we're definitely going to hold on to the Senate. It might be a shift of two or three seats when it balances out, but the Democrats are going to stay in majority in the United States Senate.

MARTIN: You think, well, in the Senate, and you're also predicting that the Democrats will hold onto the House.

Sen. BURRIS: We will hold onto - we will hold onto the House as well.

MARTIN: You are a confident man.

Sen. BURRIS: That's what I live on, and that's what makes things happen. I'm concerned about all of these pundits who get on the air and try to discourage voters with these - reporting what these, you know, polls are reporting and no one is backing up understanding where these polls are coming from, who's doing these polls, what type of questions they ask, and what special political interest these pollsters have in what they're reporting to the public.

It's almost similar to the money that's being spent, which is not being disclosed. Where is all this money coming from? Who's actually funding all of these, you know, negative ad commercials just trashing people?

MARTIN: Well, we have to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to have more with you, Senator Burris. And when we come back, I would like to ask about your couple of years in the Senate, what do you think your most significant accomplishment has been, and what you would like to see accomplished in the next term, whoever takes your seat come January.

We're speaking with departing Senator Roland Burris of Illinois about his appointment to Barack Obama's former Senate seat representing the state of Illinois and about his career and what comes next for him. We're going to take a short break right now, but please stay with us.

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

As voters prepare to go to the polls tomorrow, we are going to talk about an issue that's not exactly crowding the airwaves. That's the millions of Americans who are prohibited from casting a ballot because of a felony record. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes and we'll talk about why that matters.

But first, though, we have a few more minutes with outgoing U.S. Senator Roland Burris of Illinois. He was appointed, as you will remember, to replace then newly-elected President Barack Obama. And we're talking about his time in Washington.

Senator Burris, you do recall, of course, the circumstances under which you took office were very difficult. There was a reluctance to seat you at first because of concerns that you had something to do with the scandal involving then Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and the allegation that he was trying to sell the seat. Now, he was actually acquitted of that charge. But I would like to ask now if you have any regrets about the

Sen. BURRIS: That trial - he was not acquitted of trying to sell the seat. He was convicted on one charge and 23 were a hung jury and they're going to retry him.

MARTIN: A hung jury. That's right. Absolutely. And thank you for clarifying that. And he is going to be retried.

Sen. BURRIS: No problem.

MARTIN: And I did want to ask if you feel any regret about the way you came to Washington, if you feel that that clouded your time here.

Sen. BURRIS: No, I really don't. It was certainly a distraction. And it was nerve-racking for my family for the media to put us through that just unnecessary media barrage of information. The appointment was legal. I accepted the appointment and proceeded to get along on the business of serving the people of Illinois. And that's what we did.

And, Michel, I had to make a very tough decision along the way, because my legal bills were mounting, because as you said, they did want to seat me and then there were all these other allegations that came out, which none of them proved to be accurate at all. As a matter of fact, the perjury charge, which came out from a prosecutor from our state capital, Kelly(ph) - who was a Republican, by the way - issued a very detailed explanation of all this, which had nothing to it.

So it was all about media hype and the fact that I had the audacity to accept the appointment, which was legal and necessary for the people of Illinois and was necessary for them to have that vote in the United States Senate. That's what I stepped in and began to do.

MARTIN: Well, this appointment, as you mentioned, is the climax of years of public service by you. You're 73 now. What do you think was your most significant accomplishment while you were here?

Sen. BURRIS: Well, the votes that we cast. I mean, I was the 60th vote on several of those pieces of legislation. And even the small business bill that we just got passed is going to benefit small businesses tremendously. They had taken out the $30 billion that was going to go from the stimulus money into the banks to lend to small businesses. And Senator Landrieu, who's chairman of the Small Business Committee, and I had to get back and get that amendment back in.

We had to get 60 votes to pass the amendment. And it took us three more weeks to pass the bill. So the legislation that we passed, Michel, is excessive only short of the Great Depression legislation. But the Obama legislation has done more legislation and programs of the people of America that's been done in years. And that is to have been lost in all this rhetoric about people talking about - they're going to take the country back or they are talking about the debt and the deficit, which George Bush ran up from $5 trillion to $12 trillion in eight years.

MARTIN: But why do you think that is though? I mean you feel that these are significant accomplishments

Sen. BURRIS: These conservative media outlets are much powerful and more plentiful than the progressive or the liberal media. And they have really put information - misinformation out to the public. I sat in the United States Senate and watched those Republicans just say no, no, no to everything. There have been 110 filibusters in the history of the Congress. We've spent that many in the first session of the 111th Congress.

So it was just unbelievable of their agenda and they've (unintelligible) misleading the people talking about Obama care. We've been trying to pass health care since 1907, Michel. And that was a major accomplishment. To save the country and the financial world from collapsing with our stimulus package and our TARP financing, those were major, major decisions. And the president should be getting credit for it.

But the propaganda machine and the political machine, all they're interested in is the powers to be and getting the resources to the top people of this country - the top two percent. And that's where the Republican majority is operating from. That's where the resources are coming from, and that's who they're standing up for.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, you still have the fire.

Sen. BURRIS: I've got the fire.

MARTIN: The fire in the belly. That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, what are you going to do - before we let you go - what are you going to do with that fire in the belly now?

Sen. BURRIS: Oh, well, I'm certainly going to continue to do public service and I really enjoyed being in the United States Senate. It's been a wonderful experience. I always wanted to be a senator, and God gave me that opportunity to do it. And I took it and I'm pretty sure that when my legacy and the story is told, that Roland Burris did accomplish a great deal. But I will be moving forward and I don't know whether or not the people are going to try to run me for mayor of Chicago or not. That's the next issue.

MARTIN: Well, we'll have to talk about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Roland Burris is a Democrat. He is the junior senator representing Illinois. He is, as we mentioned, the only African-American in the upper chamber of Congress at this time. And he joined us from his office in his hometown of Chicago. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Sen. BURRIS: Thank you, Michel.

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