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Blagojevich Vaults Roland Burris Back Into Spotlight

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Roland Burris was once a popular figure in every part of Illinois. But that was years ago.

Burris, 71, hasn't won an election since 1990, despite three tries for the Democratic nomination for governor and one run for mayor of Chicago. He was the first black man to win a major statewide office.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed him Tuesday to fill President-elect Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat, thrusting him back in the political spotlight and into the center of a power struggle between Blagojevich and Senate leaders.

Blagojevich wants to demonstrate that he's still the governor, despite his arrest on corruption charges that include allegations of trying to auction off the Senate seat to the highest bidder. Senate Democrats want to keep their distance and are promising not to seat Burris or anyone else Blagojevich might try to appoint.

Burris has never experienced a controversy like this. He served three terms as comptroller, whose chief responsibility is paying the state's bills. That was followed by one relatively quiet term as Illinois attorney general.

During his 16 years as a state official, Burris' image was of a friendly, hardworking official with a bit of an ego.

Burris often talked about himself in the third person, saying "Roland Burris" thinks this and "Roland Burris" will do that. He named his son Roland II and his daughter Rolanda Sue.

In 1979, when he was first sworn in as comptroller, Burris said he had visited Abraham Lincoln's tomb that morning and wondered whether Lincoln was watching him.

"And as I stood there in that quiet place of eternal rest, amidst the snow and the monuments to the past, I knew what his answer was: 'Yes I can see you. I know who you are. And I am pleased at what is taking place in Illinois today,"' Burris said.

Burris had come a long way from his childhood in Centralia, a segregated town in southern Illinois where his father was a railroad worker. Burris' first entry into public affairs came at 15, when he led a successful effort to pressure the city swimming pool into admitting blacks.

He went to college at Southern Illinois University, then got a law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. He entered Chicago's banking world and became a vice president in eight years.

His first brush with politics _ a 1968 run for the Illinois House _ was a failure. But five years later, his political service got him appointed as an aide to Gov. Dan Walker.

He lost a 1974 bid for comptroller but captured the office in 1978. After three terms, Burris announced a run for governor but ended up running, successfully, for attorney general.

Burris said this year that his success made it possible for Illinois to elect two black senators.

"I'd say if there hadn't been a Roland Burris that there would not have been a Carol Braun or a Barack Obama," he said. "I had to lay the groundwork ... to perform in a high, statewide office."

Former campaign aide Delmarie Cobb said plenty of people will step forward to help Burris reach the Senate, even by suing on his behalf if necessary.

"His credibility is unimpeachable," Cobb said. "He says he made a promise to himself when he was a young man to never do anything that would come back to haunt him because he knew he wanted to be in public office."

Judy Baar Topinka, a former state treasurer and Republican candidate for governor, called Burris an "adequate" state official who loves politics. Still, she said, there has never been any suggestion that Burris is dishonest.

"In the state of Illinois, if there is no scandal attached to your name, you must be doing a good job," Topinka said.