Wednesday, March 21 , 2018, 7:50 pm | Light Rain Fog/Mist 57º


Mark Shields: Burris Under the Saddle

Illinois' culture of political corruption is so complex that not even its players can keep their stories straight.

Like me, you probably had never heard of Chicago Alderwoman Arenda Troutman until the Democrat was convicted in U.S. district court this past week for taking payoffs from developers seeking zoning changes, thereby becoming the 27th Chicago alderman since 1972 to be convicted on public corruption charges. Illinois politics more and more looks like Louisiana’s without the integrity.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Here in Washington, the Two Iron Rules of Political Scandals have been constant. Rule One: It is not the original act, but instead it is always the cover-up of the original act that proves politically fatal. And Rule Two: Everyone forgets Rule One.

The nation’s most junior U.S. senator, Democrat Roland Burris of Illinois (sworn in on Jan. 15) may well have amended the iron rules by getting himself in major trouble by both the original act and the cover-up.

On Jan. 5, Burris testified before the Illinois legislature that was then considering the impeachment of since-ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who had been arrested four weeks earlier on federal bribery and conspiracy charges. On Dec. 30, Blagojevich had appointed Burris to the Senate to fill the seat vacated by President Obama’s.

Under oath, Burris failed to admit that, yes, he had tried in the months before he was appointed to raise money for Blagojevich. Burris testified that he was asked by Blagojevich’s attorney on Dec. 26 if he was interested in being appointed to the Senate and that “there was not any contact between myself or any of my representatives with Gov. Blagojevich or any of his representatives regarding my appointment.”

Three days later, on Jan. 8, under intense questioning, Burris did concede that he had expressed his interest to one person, Blagojevich’s chief of staff. Four weeks later, he suddenly remembered discussing the appointment with three other Blagojevich lieutenants and Blagojevich’s politically engaged brother, with whom the subject was fundraising for the governor.

Obama and the Senate Democratic leadership were unequivocal in early January: No Senate appointee of the arrested, about-to-be-impeached Blagojevich would be seated. Then Burris deftly played the race card, making sure it was known he would be the only black in the U.S. Senate — replacing the Senate’s only black.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said following a capitulation meeting with Burris that “one of the first things he (Burris) said to us (was), ‘Hey, this is nothing that’s racial.’” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill/ reported that Burris had reassured them they had “excellent records when it comes to racial relations.”

Senate Democrats and Obama caved. Democrats in Washington had been completely and publicly “rolled” by a Chicago pol, himself facing political execution, Rod Blagojevich.

Illinois politics has never suffered from an excess of romantic idealism. One of the state’s most successful reform politicians, Abner Mikva, a former congressman and federal appeals court judge, tells the story of how in 1948, as a law student at the University of Chicago, he wanted to volunteer in the campaigns of two exceptional Democratic candidates, Paul Douglas for the U.S. Senate and Adlai Stevenson for governor.

Mikva stopped in at his local Democratic Party ward headquarters to volunteer for the two men, where the glaring ward committeeman asked him, “Who sent you?” Mikva answered, “Nobody sent me.” The committeeman dismissed him with, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

This entire Illinois Senate vacancy episode, much like the one in New York, has diminished nearly everyone involved, especially the “clarifying” Sen. Burris. It’s a shame that Roland Burris never knew the late George V. Higgins, a master of crime fiction, who wisely observed: “Tell the truth. It’s the easiest thing to remember.”

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >