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Burris seen as an honest, hard-working public official

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2008 - Three veteran Springfield political observers, men who know Roland Burris personally or have worked for him professionally, think highly of the man who may -- or may not -- inherit the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

Burris, who has been Illinois comptroller and attorney general and lost three runs for governor and one for mayor of Chicago, was named by Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday to inherit Obama's chair.

"I've always thought Burris was a good person; I liked him, he was cordial; he returned my phone calls and always told me the truth," says Gene Callahan, a fixture on the Springfield and Washington political scenes. "I always figured if a politician doesn't tell you the truth -- or if he doesn't return your phone calls -- he's probably a crook."

Callahan has been a political columnist, a political aide and strategist on the city, state and national level and a lobbyist -- the first ever -- for Major League Baseball. He has worked for former Illinois Gov. Sam Shapiro and was press secretary for then Lt. Gov. Paul Simon. For 19 and one-half years, he was chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon. Politically speaking, he's seen more or less everything -- until lately.

Callahan describes Burris as "an honorable public servant, both as comptroller and attorney general." All New Year's Eve bouquets aside, he wishes Tuesday hadn't happened.

"I think it's an unfortunate example that whatever appointment Rod Blagojevich makes, everything is immediately tainted," says Callahan. "Roland Burris is a good person, but now he finds himself in an untenable position."

Gary Koch of Springfield worked for Burris from 1984-94, as deputy director of government affairs when Burris was state comptroller and special executive assistant when he was attorney general.

"He is very honest, very committed, very hard-working. He was not afraid to go up against the odds and stand up to other people," says Koch, director of Communications and Education for the Illinois Municipal League.

Koch recalls Burris challenging then Gov. Jim Thompson on state budget numbers and being vindicated. "Burris called a news conference saying the governor is completely wrong on this and is just putting a good spin on it. And Thompson was not happy, he retaliated. He cut our budget.

"And being the first black elected to statewide office, he was used to being a fighter."

That fight goes all the way back to 1953 in Centralia, Ill., when Burris, then a 16-year-old high school student, and his father, Earl, fought -- and won -- to get the town's public swimming pool integrated.

"If we as a race of people are going to get anywhere, we need lawyers and elected officials who are responsive and responsible," Burris once told Chicago magazine. By the end of that summer, the young Burris had decided to pursue a career in politics. "That is how he got into politics and law," says Koch.

Mike Myers is a longtime Springfield attorney whose relationship with Burris, both personal and professional, dates 25 years.

"As long as I've known the man, he's been very honest, and I think his public record proves it," says Myers of the law firm Sorling Northrup Hanna Cullen and Cochran.

"He's seen a lot of government. He's seen it from an administrative standpoint, from a financial standpoint and as chief legal officer. When I first heard that Gov. Blagojevich had mentioned a bunch of names, I thought he should have been in that group. He's kind of an elder statesman like Jim Edgar" (two-term Illinois governor).

Myers served as an appointed attorney on condemnation matters while Burris was AG. "He was very proud of his southern Illinois roots," recalls Myers. "He let everybody know he was from Centralia and had been there most of his growing up years. I think he's very proud of that."

Myers believes Burris' temperament is right for Illinois' troubled times.

"He's very low key, he's thoughtful, he's upbeat. And in this day and age, no scandal has been attached to Roland Burris. Boy, have things changed."

Setting aside the merits of Burris' pedigree, what of the man who named him to the U.S. Senate? "I'd like to see him resign," says Myers of Blagojevich. "It would be kind of nasty to have to go through an impeachment process."

Koch similarly finds Burris in a politically tender place, but says anybody would be.

"If Gandhi were nominated (to the Illinois Senate seat), he'd be being ripped apart right now."

However, Koch says, he understands Burris' position. "It (the Senate nomination) would be hard to turn down. He's looking at it from multiple standpoints. It's something he will be able to tell his grandchildren.

"Who better at this point in our history? Who better than a guy with his banking experience and (being) top chief fiscal officer of one of the largest states in the union? I don't blame him."

Burris, Koch says, "knows that sooner or later, someone's going to be in that seat. (With Burris) you get some seniority. If you have a special election, the guy is 100 out of 100" in the Senate pecking order.

Koch says he agrees with the TV analyst who said, "If this were a chess game, Blagojevich just captured the queen."

For Callahan, though, if Blagojevich is, at least for the moment king, it should be off with his head.

"Other than their initials," Callahan says, "the governor and the man who would be senator have very little in common."

"I am no Johnny-come-lately on being critical of Blagojevich," says fellow Democrat Callahan, who first became disillusioned with the governor in 2005. "He did not respond to (then Sen.) Paul Simon's letter in writing, and he did not return his phone calls. In that letter he (Simon) said it is easier for me to get hold of the president of the United States than you."

Callahan believes that Blagojevich's ouster is inevitable. "I think he will be impeached. I think he will be convicted. I think Pat Quinn will be the governor and should have the authority to name the U.S. senator."

Burris' appointment and credentials, Callahan believes, will serve to expedite the vanquishing of Blagojevich.

"I think this will accelerate the timetable (for impeachment) because they (the Illinois legislature) are so sick and tired of him. This will make them."

Callahan respects Burris' record, but thinks he should have been content to remain the Prairie State's frequent governmental bridesmaid.

"He positively should have told him no," Callahan says. "As good as I judge him, I am disappointed in him."

So, why didn't Roland Burris, a distinguished Chicago attorney, lobbyist and elder statesman at age 71, choose to stay out of the line of fire?

"I don't know," says Callahan. "Some people want things too much."


Burris has been a low-key pioneer in Illinois politics. | New York Times
What's Obama to do? |  Politico
Burris makes his case | Politico
Jesse White says no | Chicago Tribune

Paul Povse is a freelance journalist in Springfield, IL.