Burris, Hoping To Revive Career, Rejected By Senate The man appointed to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat arrived at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday hoping to be sworn in as a Democratic senator from Illinois. A short time later, Roland Burris stepped outside and said he had been rejected. Burris' appointment by Illinois' embattled governor was a chance to rekindle a dormant career.
NPR logo

Burris, Hoping To Revive Career, Rejected By Senate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99036138/99036117" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Burris, Hoping To Revive Career, Rejected By Senate


It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO: And I'm Ari Shapiro. The man appointed to fill President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat arrived at the U.S. Capitol today hoping to be sworn in as the Democratic senator from Illinois. A short time later, he stepped outside in the rain and stopped briefly before a crowd of reporters.

Mr. ROLAND BURRIS (Democrat, Illinois Senator-Designate): Members of the media, my name is Roland Burris, the junior senator from the state of Illinois. I've presented my credentials to the secretary of the Senate and advised that my credentials were not in order and I would not be accepted and I would not be seated, and I would not be permitted on the floor. And therefore, I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation. I will now consult with my attorneys and we will determine what our next step will be. Thank you all very much, and God bless each and every one of you. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: That's the entire statement of Roland Burris. The Democratic leadership in the Senate has said it won't seat Burris because he was appointed by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich who's accused of trying to sell the Senate seat. We'll hear more from Roland Burris this afternoon on NPR's All Things Considered. This morning, we're examining a story that touches on politics, ethics, and race. We begin with a profile of the Chicago politician who stepped before those microphones today. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY: It's been exactly a week since embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris to the Senate seat. As senators and others have railed against the appointment, calling any Blagojevich choice tainted, Burris has gone on the offence, touting his credentials with reporters and at a rally of supporters.

(Soundbite of rally)

Mr. BURRIS: I spent 20 years in Illinois government. There is nobody in this state who knows Illinois the way I know it. They couldn't have sent a better person to Washington to represent the 13 million people of the state of Illinois than myself.

CORLEY: Congressman Danny Davis turned down the appointment when offered. But it's no surprise that Burris stepped into the Senate fray, says Alan Gitelson, a political science professor at Loyola University. He says the former attorney general wanted to go much further than he had in public life.

Dr. ALAN GITELSON (Professor of Political Science, Loyola University): At the age of 71, he's obviously very much a senior member of the political scene in Illinois. His political history was his past history, and this was an opportunity there that I doubt in any sense of the word he was going to be able to turn down.

CORLEY: Besides, it's no secret the small, bespectacled Burris has a strong ego - not uncommon for many politicians, but it's played out in interesting ways for Burris. Both Burris' daughter and son, Rolanda and Roland II, are named after him. And on a wall of a mausoleum he owns at a Chicago cemetery, there's a list of his accomplishments with room for more. At the top of the list, carved in stone, is the word "trailblazer." Nothing wrong with that says Gitelson.

Dr. GITELSON: He has been a trailblazer. What happened, though, was that he began to fade away.

CORLEY: Fade away because Burris has been out of the political scene for so many years. But Burris began trying to break barriers in his youth. As a teenager in Centralia, his hometown in southern Illinois, he attempted to integrate a local swimming pool. After he graduated from Howard University Law School, he became a banker, and later he would go on to make history in Illinois politics becoming the first African-American to win a statewide office. He was Illinois comptroller for three terms and then became the state's attorney general. Roosevelt University political science professor Paul Green has known Burris since the days of his first campaigns.

Dr. PAUL GREEN (Professor of Political Science, Roosevelt University): In those days he always wore a vested suit. And Roland was the party guy. Roland was the insider against the community organizing people. And now these community organizing people are now rallying to Roland's side for the first time ever.

CORLEY: Many of those supporters say an African-American should fill the seat vacated by Barack Obama. While Burris has a reputation of being more of a benign politician than activist, most pundits here agree he understands the political system and what he must do to get elected. In the race for attorney general, he supported abortion rights and gay rights, a plus in this moderate state, and he bested a conservative Republican.

Where Burris went wrong, though, says Rob Warden, is when as attorney general he didn't acknowledge mistakes made in the prosecution of a convicted murderer, Rolando Cruz, who was later exonerated of killing 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. Warden is the head of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Mr. ROB WARDEN (Executive Director, Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University): He wanted to appear tough on crime. And he thought probably that the public is not going to quite understand what's gone wrong here and why this case produced the wrong result, and therefore chose to ignore it.

CORLEY: After his term ended, Burris had a string of losing campaigns, failing in his efforts to become Illinois governor in three campaigns, losing a bid for Senate, and taking on Mayor Daley in the mid-1990s as an independent. Daley would win in a landslide. Since then, Burris has worked as a private attorney and run a lobbying and consulting firm. Now, he's moved back into the political spotlight with the gift of a new career. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.