An Empty Suit For an Empty Seat

Is Roland Burris qualified for the U.S. Senate?


Wall Street titan Bernard Madoff proved you can take an outstanding reputation and ruin it overnight. Now Roland Burris has demonstrated that even a mediocre reputation can be instantly destroyed.

Burris is the prototypical time-serving career politician who owes his success to being simultaneously ambitious and bland. He has never been one to challenge the status quo, but no one underestimates his self-esteem. The two Burris children, after all, are named Roland and Rolanda.

The result of his immodesty has been a persistent hunger for offices that most people thought beyond his abilities. He has lost races for mayor of Chicago, U.S. senator, and governor of Illinois (three times).

Burris' chief claim to fame until this week was his 12-year term as state comptroller, a job whose significance can be measured by the fact that few Illinoisans could identify the current occupant (Dan Hynes). Even among accountants, Burris left few strong impressions, but he also never gave any prosecutor grounds to indict him, which is not something Illinois voters take for granted.

When the news broke that Gov. Rod Blagojevich was trying to auction off Barack Obama's Senate seat, Burris called his behavior "appalling." After the governor appointed him to fill the vacancy, though, the onetime comptroller-for-life lost interest in the scandal. "I have no comment on what the governor's circumstance is," he demurred.

But logic has never been his strong suit. A longtime advocate of a national handgun ban, Burris organized Chicago's first Gun Turn-in Day in 1993. But when he ran for governor the following year, he admitted that he owned a handgun ("for protection,") and did not hand it over to police as he urged others to do.

"He had simply forgotten about it," his spokesman said at the time—a claim that, if believable, suggested Burris was not exactly the model for conscientious gun ownership. "Honey, didn't I used to have a pistol around here? Any idea where it might be?"

But now he finds himself chosen for a body where his ego would be among equals. Burris attested Tuesday that he is "the most qualified person in the state of Illinois." Besides that disinterested testament, he was hailed as "a good and honest man" by a benefactor who faces not only indictment but impeachment.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a fellow African-American, couldn't resist a racial appeal, urging Blagojevich's critics "to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer." The governor rewarded the effort by saying, "That was excellent, Bobby," which may not stand as the former Black Panther's proudest moment. The overall effect was to confirm that Roland Burris is to racism what Harriet Miers was to sexism—not a victim.

Blagojevich insisted he had the obligation to make an appointment, rather than "deprive the people of Illinois of their appropriate voice and votes in the United States Senate." A lot of his constituents would just as soon wait, but if the governor felt it imperative to fill the seat, he could have offered some compromise solution—say, inviting Democrats in the General Assembly to recommend a candidate. That option, however, would have meant forgoing about the only power the governor has left, except the power to make citizens wonder why on earth they ever let him on the ballot.

The appointment evoked no warm feelings among Democrats in the U.S. Senate, who vowed to reject anyone chosen by Blagojevich. Burris, his allies, and some legal experts insist the senators lack that constitutional authority, and the U.S. Supreme Court's 1969 ruling that the House could not refuse to seat Adam Clayton Powell suggests they may be right.

But they overlook some pertinent facts. One is that the Powell case took more than two years to resolve, which doesn't bode well for someone aspiring to fill the last two years of Obama's term. The second is that even if Senate Democrats can't legally keep him out, they can render him irrelevant.

Most of the work of Congress is done in committee, and the Constitution doesn't say a senator is entitled to serve on committees—in fact, it doesn't even mention committees. Once on Capitol Hill, Burris may have nothing to do but bask in his new title, show up for an occasional floor vote, and cash his paycheck.

For that job, come to think of it, Burris is perfect.


NEXT: Leave the Driving to Us

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  1. this will turn out to be another republican plot to steal a position.

  2. What does today’s brickbat have to do with minimal government?

  3. Are we supposed to condemn the guy for it? I mean,big fuckin deal, Let him have it you cosmoooootarian bums

  4. Todays political system is such a SHAM!


  5. My comment today is such a SPAM!

    Mister Futile Marketing Tool

  6. Pardon the threadjack, but re: the brickbat, I’d say it qualifies as a beef against the government on account o’ this:

    …he has been relieved of duty with pay pending an investigation.

    …so, assuming the Miami/Dade bus system is publicly-funded, (No, I’m not going to do the research! It’s a holiday!) this dude hits a bicyclist, refuses to stop (actually, come to think of it, this item SHOULD have been posted in Hit & Run!) and is rewarded with paid time off courtesy of the taxpayers! Is this a great country, or what?

    To get back to the ostensible topic of the thread (sorta,) perhaps the Democrats in the Senate would care to have this bus driver reassigned to The Chosen One’s vacant Senate seat? (Have they come up with a better plan to fill it, since the Illinois leg apparently took a pass on a special election, IIRC??)

  7. Thank you, chick, I’d overlooked that because it’s such a common practice in government-sinecures.

    But if it were, in our ideal world, a private employer, would we approve of docking pay on the basis of unproven assertions? How is justice served by imposing a financial hardship? Do we know the bystanders got their facts right and had no grudge? Wouldn’t we want to hear the driver’s side?

  8. SWESIAT (10:02) – If the bus driver isn’t doing work (say, like a cop involved in a shooting, reassigned to a desk job) I don’t think he’s necessarily entitled to get paid during that time. PTO is not a God-given natural right – my hubby’s a real estate appraiser and is paid strictly by the job – no PTO ever. If the bus system doesn’t have any non-driving work he can do, let him use accrued vacation (if he’s got some) if he wants to keep drawing a paycheck for the duration of the investigation.

    Come to think of it, doesn’t most of the U.S. Senate (and House and big chunks of the Executive Branch) deserve to be relieved of duty and/or reassigned to allegedly-productive desk jobs until somebody figures out where all that bailout money went? As for the current IL fiasco, I say the fewer Senators the better for as long as possible!

    See Rod Blagojevich and an all-star cast in “All-Star Jailhouse Rock” at


  10. Yes, I assumed he’d be given the option of some compensated fruitful work to do.

    As should the government workers you mentioned, who have done far worse evil – ie genocide – than this bus driver allegedly has.

  11. Some Chick,

    The smaller number of senators means each Senator is more powerful, which I don’t consider a good thing.

  12. Burris has about as much integrity as any Illinois Democrat – that is to say, not much. Regardless of the screaming, what do want to bet that when push comes to shove, this appointment is going to be allowed to stand?

  13. You can say that again! Throw them all in jail!


  14. Has this guy ever had a job in the private sector?


  15. the private sector

    Grandpa, what was “the private sector”?

  16. The private sector was a place where people exercised what they called “freedom”, little one, until one day it was gone, replaced by Universal Care & Justice. Some say the private sector still exists in hidden valleys, although no one has found these places. But don’t worry, you have free healthcare, your Minimal Fairness Support, and The Supreme One loves you — all is good, now go to sleep.

  17. The smaller number of senators means each Senator is more powerful, which I don’t consider a good thing.

    Cunni (may I call you Cunni?)- that’s something to ponder: Does the sum total of the Senate’s power remain constant as the number of Senators varies – and get divided more or less evenly among however many there are? (Did that happen as the number of Reps in the House increased until the number was fixed @ 435?)

    If so, would it do any good to increase the number of Senators to something approaching infinity in order to minimize each individual Senator’s potential to do damage?

    Food for thought, indeed, but for now it’s time for more football! (Go, Spartans!)

    (For that matter, was Private Sector court-martialed by General Public?)

  18. These fucking corrupt politicians! So unlike the straight shooters in the private sector.

  19. There are no chicks on the internet.

    Also, worthwhile Chapman column. Really. Of course, it’s on a day nobody is here, so his reputation is intact.

  20. Wait – was this a worthwhile Chapman article?

    He basically states that Burris is not qualified because he has a big ego, because the press conference exuded black power and because few people in Illinois can name the current comptroller. Sorry, but that’s not an argument.

    I await the day when Burris is kept from the Senate, and Democrats fall one vote short to accomplish Obama’s sweeping agenda. If they want to block him, that’s their problem and their loss. Republicans will certainly enjoy watching the Democrats fight amongst themselves. But I think it’s difficult to argue that Burris is any less qualified than former State Rep Obama was when he became a Senator (how many people can name all the state reps?), and compared to Caroline Kennedy, he’s a goldmine of experience.

  21. Oh wait, forgot one more bad argument by Chapman: that he didn’t want to bite the hand that feeds him. He already made a statement, and we can all assume that he still believes that.

    I’m still wondering if what Blagojevich did was actually wrong. I’m wondering if he was joking. But even if he was dead serious, think of how many campaign donors and high-profile endorsers in the winner’s circle get appointed to positions. Is that not sort of pay-to-play as well? If the Obama Administration had requests for the governor’s pick, and Blago wanted a way out of being governor, the way he did it was sketchy, but probably legal. It definitely tows the line of bribery, but I wouldn’t say it’s as clear cut as the media has made it out to be.

  22. Nick:

    “I await the day when Burris is kept from the Senate, and Democrats fall one vote short to accomplish Obama’s sweeping agenda.”

    Probably Blagojevich will be impeached and removed form office by February, so all the Senate Democrats have to do is to stall until then; instead of either seating Burris or definitively rejecting him, have a committee investigate whether the appointment of Burris is tainted, and then when Lieuteant Governor Pat Quinn becomes Governor decide to seat whoever Quinn picks instead of Burris. So at worst the Democrats may delay some closely contested votes for a month or two.

    By the way, I agree with you that the “Senate seat for sale” allegation is actually one of the weaker parts of Fitzgerld’s case against Blagojevich. For one thing he can plausibly claim it was all “just talk” and that some of it would be legitimate political horse trading anyway. Other allegations–shaking down Children’s Memorial Hospital, for example–seem to me much stronger. But the Senate problem was what forced Fitzgerald to arrest Blagojevich before he really wanted to do so.

  23. Elf Ninos Mom (“Last Free Voice”) Is Tamara Johnson from Huntington WV

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  24. Grandpa, what was “the private sector”?

    It was what we referred to as “the real world” before 1961, Grasshopper.

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  26. Grandpa, what was “the private sector”?

    It’s what they call the “Black Market” now.


  27. may I call you Cunni?

    Call me anything you want, as long as it’s not late for dinner. And by dinner I mean

  28. Well, Illinois may as well replace one empty-suit with another empty-suit.

    They have had a seat-warmer holding the position since 2004.

    Does Barry even know where the Senate chambers are located?

  29. And by dinner I mean

    Cunni, since I’ve known what the -vore suffix means since high school Etymology, I can pretty much guess what you mean by dinner! ; )

    (At the risk of invoking another regular,) “Mmmmm, Tacos!”

  30. of course Blagojevich was jst joking. the only people who would think not are republican fascists and their libertarian toadies.

  31. Probably Blagojevich will be impeached and removed form office by February, so all the Senate Democrats have to do is to stall until then; instead of either seating Burris or definitively rejecting him, have a committee investigate whether the appointment of Burris is tainted, and then when Lieuteant Governor Pat Quinn becomes Governor decide to seat whoever Quinn picks instead of Burris.

    Won’t work. Burris was appointed by the sitting Governor of Illinois, who had the power to appoint him. Burris will fight for his appointment, and I think its pretty clear he will win.

    The Senate can delay, but they can’t block, and any appointment by Quinn will be invalid because there is no vacancy for him to fill.

  32. Why did Balko miss this story?

    Burris sought death for innocent man
    By BEN PROTESS– PROPUBLICA | 1/1/09 12:24 PM EST

    . . .

    While state attorney general in 1992, Burris aggressively sought the death penalty for Rolando Cruz, who twice was convicted of raping and murdering a 10-year-old girl in the Chicago suburb of Naperville. The crime took place in 1983.

    But by 1992, another man had confessed to the crime, and Burris’ own deputy attorney general was pleading with Burris to drop the case, then on appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court.

    Burris refused. He was running for governor.

    “Anybody who understood this case wouldn’t have voted for Burris,” Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, told ProPublica. Indeed, Burris lost that race, and two other attempts to become governor.

    Burris’ role in the Cruz case was “indefensible and in defiance of common sense and common decency,” Warden said. “There was obvious evidence that [Cruz] was innocent.”

    Deputy attorney general Mary Brigid Kenney agreed and eventually resigned rather than continue to prosecute Cruz.

    Once Burris assigned Kenney to the case in 1991, she became convinced that Cruz was innocent, a victim of what she believed was prosecutorial misconduct. She sent Burris a memo reporting that the jury convicted Cruz without knowing that Brian Dugan, a repeat sex offender and murderer, had confessed to the crime. Burris never met with Kenney to discuss a new trial for Cruz, Kenney told ProPublica.

    “This is something the attorney general should have been concerned about,” Kenney, now an assistant public guardian in Cook County, said in an interview. “I knew the prosecutor’s job was not merely to secure conviction but to ensure justice was done.”

    Kenney was not alone in her beliefs. Prior to Cruz’s 1985 trial, the lead detective in the case resigned in protest over prosecutors’ handling of the case, according to news reports at the time.

    . . .

    In late 1995, Cruz finally walked free after serving 11 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

    A grand jury later indicted four sheriff’s deputies and three former county prosecutors for their roles in the Cruz case. They were eventually acquitted. Burris was never accused of any wrongdoing or misconduct. Dugan is scheduled to stand trial for the crime next year, 26 years after it was committed.

  33. actually the issue is that the governor gets to appoint the Senator, even if those in Washington do not like the governor, or the senator. Once again a precedent for concentrating power in Washington is being set.

    As to Blago selling the seat, Why is Caroline Kennedy an Ok appointee when she is being chosen for her ‘fund raising ability’ as the NY press likes to call it?

  34. Unfortunately, this guy meets the qualifications and Blago is authorized to appoint him. For a little more info:

    Also for another hysterical view of Chicago politics:,0,5724822.columnist

  35. Doubled up the Politico post – oops

  36. Also for another hysterical view of Chicago politics:

    Thank you for that. This is priceless, hilarious, and very true:

    So when the freak show comes to Washington next week and political hack Roland “I’m a tool of the people” Burris is denied entry to the Senate, and the national political class shrieks in fake outrage and Blagojevich surrounds himself with African-American ministers and he sings “Let my people go!” remember who could have stopped all this: Obama, Madigan, Daley and the Illinois Democrats.

  37. My whole deal is, the Illinois legislature could have made legislation to block Blago from making the appointment and had it done with weeks ago. They waited, and thus Blago maintained the authority to appoint someone. If the legislators felt that Blago was unfit to make the appointment, they should have acted. Obviously it wasn’t an urgent enough issue for them, and now it’s too late. Now the Senate will be in session next week and, had the Illinois legislature had it’s way and/or if the Senate somehow blocks Burris, would have had only one Senator. Blago actually granted the legislature several weeks to change hands, and they punted. Then he appointed someone just in time for the session to start – sorry, but that seems like a very logical and responsible thing for him to do to me…

  38. This just in from the Chicago bars:

    The Senate Seat

    A fuckin’ shot a impeach schnapps
    A couple a shots a fuckin’ vodka
    Some Midori to make it fuckin’ green like money

    Price negotiable.

  39. As Attorney General, Roland Burris tried hard to have executed two men whom he knew to be innocent. As I see it, allowing himself to be used by a corrupt Governor is just another chance for Burris to sell his soul for higher office.

  40. Methinks that all the posturing has more to do with the election in two years rather than now. Reid, Durbin, and the group don’t want to have this as an election issue. They would prefer Quinn do the work. Additionally, a special election now scares them since they are afraid they would lose the seat. Like all have said, the General Assembly could have prevented this.

  41. Under the Constitution, Reid said, “We determine who sits in the Senate. And the House (of Representatives) determines who sits in the House. So there’s clearly legal authority for us to do whatever we want to do. This goes back for generations.”

    WTF? We’ve done it before so it must be legal?

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