Roland Burris After a nightmarish two years in Washington, former U.S. Senator Roland Burris is settling back into life in Illinois, trying to rebuild his reputation and retire an $800,000 debt from a legal battle to keep his Senate seat. Still, he told me he does not regret accepting the position from former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose retrial on corruption charges starts Wednesday.
I met Burris on Friday at his home in the South Side neighborhood of Chatham, where he has lived for 39 years with his wife, Berlean. I expected him to greet me in his usual suit and pocket square, but the always natty former senator—who says he’s “assessing [his] opportunities”—was dressed in a tan shirt and dress slacks. We sat in matching orange velvet wing chairs in his living room and talked for about 90 minutes.
The last 22 ½ months in the public life of the 73-year-old have been hell. On December 30, 2008, three weeks after Blago was arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder, there was Burris in the glare of TV cameras, smiling nervously, eyes darting, searching for a friend in the packed room, hoping against hope that the appointment he sought from then-Gov. Blagojevich would survive the snickers surrounding the ignominy of his patron—the soon-to-be impeached Blago.
It’s not as if Burris hadn’t suffered his share of political defeats: in 1968 for an Illinois House seat; in 1984 in the U.S. Senate primary; in 1995 running for mayor against Richard M. Daley (he lost badly, 61 to 35 percent); and in 1994, 1998, and 2002, losing in gubernatorial primaries (the last time to Blago). Still, Burris’s reputation as a man who had jumped an important hurdle in Illinois—he is the first African American to win a statewide constitutional office [of comptroller]—had always survived. Born in Centralia, Burris, the son of a railroad worker, got a law degree from Howard University in D.C. He became a banker, and then the state’s comptroller and attorney general.
But when he accepted the tainted Blago appointment, his reputation suffered what seems to be irreparable damage. Important voices from Dick Durbin to Harry Reid to the editorial pages of the Chicago Tribune pleaded with him to give up the seat. Still, Burris wanted to be a U.S. Senator, and that was that. Here, some of our conversation, in which he discusses how his Senate colleagues treated him, his role in the health-care bill, plans to repay his crushing debt, and more:
CF: Do you regret taking the appointment?
RB: Not at all. I desired it, and I did a very good job for the people of Illinois and for America.
CF: How much debt do you have?
RB: It has been as high as $800,000; now just over $600,000, mostly in legal fees. We had to fight nine legal battles, all of them just nonsense.
CF: How are you going to retire that?
RB: I’m trying to plan a fundraiser.
CF: You need a big name. Do you have one?
RB: Vice President Joe Biden is a good friend of mine and he said, ‘What happened to you, Roland, is just unconscionable. I want to help you. You shouldn’t have been treated that way.’
CF: Are you saying the vice president is going to headline a fundraiser?
RB: No, it’s very tenuous, just based on a statement he made to me when I was in the Senate. We’re in touch with Biden’s staff.
CF: Among your Senate colleagues, who else was kind to you?
RB: Joe Lieberman, Tom Udall (we were Attorneys General together), Sheldon Whitehouse, Bill Nelson and Republicans Orrin Hatch and Pat Roberts.
CF: What about the senior senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin?
RB: Our relationship was not as professional as it should have been. He was offended by me taking the appointment.
CF: Did you have much contact with Barack Obama?
RB: I only had one one-on-one meeting with Obama—it dealt with the health-care bill.
CF: The Wall Street Journal had reported that you threatened to withhold your vote for Obama’s bill if it did not contain a public option. Is that what the meeting was about?
RB: Yes. I got a compromise from him that there would be cost accountability and competition. I knew I had a major impact on the health-care bill. If I voted against that bill, it would have died.
CF: How do you think your successor Republican Sen. Mark Kirk is doing?
RB: Mark Kirk is not a Roland Burris.
CF: You had wanted to run in the Democratic primary for a full term. Why didn’t you?
RB: The situation got so negative that even my supporters began to believe the erroneous press information that Burris has done something wrong. I remember some friends out in Washington D.C., and they were shocked to learn that I hadn’t cut some kind of deal to stay out of jail; rumors and erroneous stuff that Burris had agreed to not run for the Senate and thereby he wouldn’t be prosecuted.
CF: Would the Democrats have kept the seat with you as its nominee as opposed to Alexi Giannoulias?
RB: I endorsed Giannoulias, but I was not part of his campaign. He didn’t want to mention my name. My supporters said that the Democrats were not fair to me. Most of them voted for LeAlan Jones of the Green Party, and he got enough votes to hurt Giannoulias.
CF: Any plans to run for office again?
RB: Some people were trying to run me for mayor in this last election.
CF: Will you run for mayor in four years?
RB: I doubt it. There comes a time when the mind may want to, but the body can’t take it. [He mentioned suffering from back pain, and his discomfort became obvious to me as our conversation progressed.]
CF: Any conversations with Rahm Emanuel, offers to participate in some way in his administration?
CF: Did you make an endorsement during the mayoral primary?
RB: I didn’t endorse Carol Moseley Braun. I voted for Carol. She didn’t have what it took to take on the mayor’s campaign.
CF: During your time in D.C., you took quite a hit in the political blogs. Did you read them?
RB: I’m not computer savvy. I get my news from WBBM-AM and from WVON. I stopped getting the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. The worst was Mark Brown in the Sun-Times. John Kass in the Tribune is just obnoxious. I assume he wants to be another Royko.
CF: Rod Blagojevich goes on trial next week. Have you been in touch with him at all?
RB: I will not comment on that situation. [I tried every which way to get Burris to comment on his beleaguered former patron. He repeated, “I will not comment on that situation” every time.]
CF: You bought this house from [gospel singer] Mahalia Jackson?
RB: Yes, in 1971. She had a verse from the Bible hanging over each one of the doors. I was at Continental Bank. She had signed a contract to buy the Jewish Temple that PUSH now has. She had made a deposit, and the loan officer ended up talking to me about whether to loan her money to buy it. She was going to build a church. She wanted to borrow all this money and I said, ‘Well, how you going to pay it back? You don’t have a congregation.’ She told me, ‘The Lord will provide.’
CF: There’s an historical marker outside your house celebrating her. Do you think some day there will also be one about you?
RB: The real estate agents market the fact that Sen. Burris lives on the block.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune