Roland Burris arrived in Washington this week to claim something the voters of Illinois have long refused him: a position of real power and the respect that comes with it. In this case, a Senate seat.
Burris is a true African-American pioneer. He was the first black to win statewide office in Illinois when he was elected state comptroller in 1978. And he was only the second African-American in the entire country to become a state prosecutor when he was elected attorney general in 1991. But Burris has never been accorded any real respect for those accomplishments, and the four times he ran for a higher office since 1991, he was overwhelmingly rejected by voters.
That can't sit well with a man who has already erected a monument to himself in Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago's South Side. The mausoleum he built has the words "Trail Blazer" carved into it. Burris's accomplishments, including the elected offices he's held, are literally written in stone on one wall. But there's a problem. Burris left space at the bottom of that list for his future accomplishments and has none to add. "U.S. Senate" would fit nicely.
Burris is not a corrupt man. He is a low-key, charming guy who has been forced to live in the shadows of Chicago's Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama. He's never been involved in a scandal. The only thing he's guilty of is having an ego—and making that an offense would require jailing every politician who ever shook a hand or slapped a back. So when Burris finally had his chance to become a United States senator, he jumped at it.
The seat Burris is already calling his own, however, is the very same seat that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell to the highest bidder. Or at least that appeared to be his plan in the hours of taped phone conversations federal authorities listened to before they arrived at Blagojevich's house on Chicago's North Side in the predawn hours of Dec. 9, 2008, to arrest him for it.
Burris himself has called Blagojevich's extreme pay-to-play schemes "reprehensible." But when Blagojevich offered him the job—after another African-American lawmaker turned it down—Burris saw only a way to fill in that blank space on his personal monument.
Blagojevich had been warned repeatedly that the Senate leadership would never accept anyone he appointed to take the Senate seat once held by Obama, the president-elect. The governor's attempt to exchange what he called a "[expletive] valuable thing" for a position in the Obama administration or lucrative outside jobs for him and his wife has tainted any choice he would make immeasurably.
That's why Burris was such an interesting choice for Blagojevich. In making it, the governor nearly succeeded in turning the appointment of Illinois's junior senator into an awkward racial issue rather than a metaphorical verdict on his own actions. And Blagojevich's reasons are as nakedly obvious as Burris's.
As delusional as Blagojevich's claims of having done nothing wrong appear, he is no fool. Or, certainly, not as big a fool as his legion of detractors makes him out to be.
What Blagojevich wants—and what Burris seems hellbent on helping him win—is the same thing he has always wanted every time he had to staff a state job, issue a state contract, or fill a U.S. Senate seat. Blagojevich wants the best deal he can get.
And it's clear from his post-arrest actions that he believes that if can tie up the Illinois General Assembly and the U.S. Senate long enough, someone might sidle up to him and ask how much he wants to just go away.
And why wouldn't he expect to get something for doing what every other reasonable person would have regarded as the right thing in the first place: stepping down? Blagojevich has traded everything he's ever laid hands on, including his own integrity. His job and the pile of campaign cash he collected to keep it are the last things Blagojevich has to trade as governor. It makes sense that he would try to leverage it to reduce his jail time or to buy his wife, Patricia, a bit of protection from what Blagojevich calls a "political lynch mob." If Blagojevich erected a mausoleum next to Burris's at Oak Woods, it would have "Deal Maker" carved in it.
What could possibly make Blagojevich think he can get a deal? Well, he doesn't have to look far for inspiration. Former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the 36-year veteran of Washington and chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, was busted by federal authorities and charged with 13 counts, including embezzling from the House bank and obstructing justice. When he was finally sentenced to prison in 1996, Rosty ended up serving just 17 months on two of the more minor mail-fraud charges. He was then pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
Is it really hard to believe that the man who later filled Rosty's seat in Congress, the man who apparently shook down a children's hospital for campaign contributions, the man who once thought of taking Obama's seat for himself so he'd have the clout and money to clear his name and run for president in 2016—is it really hard to believe that that man could be bought off?
Bob Kemper is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., and a former political reporter for the Chicago Tribune.