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Spurning the spotlight, Burris settles into the Senate

After a long, bumpy road to the Capitol, the Illinois Democrat gets to work. And don't mention his mausoleum again.

February 03, 2009|Jill Zuckman

WASHINGTON — Sen. Roland Burris was moving fast through the Capitol.

No matter that he was going in the wrong direction, headed toward the House when he thought he was going to his Senate office. His pace was brisk, his smile broad. He was having fun in his new job as the junior senator from Illinois.

Tourists, staffers, Capitol police officers, custodians and even other members of Congress all want to meet the Democrat, shake his hand and congratulate him on his arrival in Washington.

Asked if he ever felt a sense of amazement that a small-town boy from Centralia, Ill., the son of a railroad worker, would be walking through halls that are part of the nation's history, Burris, 71, paused.

"I have had one of the most interesting lives of anyone who has ever lived," he said, attributing his rise to the fact that "I strategize a lot, and I pray a lot."

Without a doubt, his life just got a lot more interesting.

He has cast 27 votes since being sworn in Jan. 15. He has attended the first meetings of his three committees: armed services, homeland security and veterans affairs. And he has spoken for a total of one minute and 18 seconds about his concern for homeless veterans in urban areas during his brief appearance at the veterans panel.

Because he's so new, it's impossible to say that any of Burris' workdays are typical. But one recent morning he arrived at his Senate office in the Dirksen building at 8:30, only to discover that he had beaten the band of volunteers who have been helping him.

Fortunately, he had a key.

What he does not have -- at least not at the moment -- is a number of staff aides, including a legislative director, a communications director, a scheduler, a legislative counsel or support staff. The aide who has been assigned to accompany Burris from committee hearings to the Senate floor and over to the House and back has worked as a fundraiser, but she doesn't know her way around the Capitol, contributing to Burris' directional missteps.

He has gotten help setting up his operation from his law partner, Fred Lebed, and his friend Jason Erkes, president of the Chicago Sport and Social Club. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) has given him advice. On Friday, Burris snagged Darrel Thompson, senior advisor to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to be his chief of staff, though the assignment is considered temporary.

Although his path to the Senate may have been unorthodox, it certainly resulted in a massive amount of attention.

First, Burris had to fight for his seat. When he showed up to be sworn in Jan. 13, he was barred from the Capitol and gave a news conference across the street in the rain.

That cold reception was linked to the man who appointed Burris: former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, who was impeached by the state House, convicted unanimously by the state Senate, removed from the governorship and barred from holding future public office. Blagojevich also faces federal corruption charges, which includes an allegation that he tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. Although Burris is not accused of wrongdoing, U.S. senators initially were determined not to seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich.

They backed down; Burris was sworn in two days later. And the publicity has contributed to the reaction he's getting now.

"We're getting calls from all over the country," Burris said. "I would assume some of those would be African American calls, because I'm the only African American senator, and these people now know that I'm here because of all the publicity that [the media] . . . brought upon me in getting here."

He is the fourth black senator to serve since Reconstruction, and the third to represent Illinois. He thought he would just be a low-profile, hard-working public servant. But he discovered that when you are appointed by a discredited governor and you have to fight to claim your seat, that's not likely to be the case.

"For some reason, any time a senator comes from Illinois, they end up being a national, instant star. I mean, Carol Moseley Braun was an instant star. Barack was," he said. "You all, you media almost turned me into one, though I had no intentions of being one."

Although his committee assignments dictate that his focus will be on military, veterans and domestic security issues, Burris said his primary concern is the economy.

"My passion right now is jobs, jobs, jobs. We've got to put people back to work in this country," he said. "That's the only thing that's going to do it. I'm not talking about no $5 jobs."

He wants to see manufacturing make a comeback in America, though he acknowledged that was a tall order.

"Bring it back from all of these countries where this global economy has shipped these jobs off to," Burris said. "I don't know how effective that's going to be because it's so to the point now where you don't know whether you can reverse it."

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