Mr. Burris Goes to Washington (Finally)

02/14/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

The debacle is over.

Roland W. Burris, 71, will be seated as the junior senator from Illinois, becoming the lone African American in the U.S. Senate.

The appointment of Burris to the U.S. Senate should have been a seamless. But Burris' plight became an international spectacle, thanks to a seedy political scandal that involved charges of corruption, back room bartering, alleged high-profile bidders and a relentless prosecutor armed with a suitcase of secret tapes.

The only thing missing from this scandal is sex. (Oh, wait. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is an alum of People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" hall of fame, so there ya' go.)

And yet another chapter of The Chicago Way has been written.

Let's recap: President-Elect Barack Obama vacated a U.S. Senate seat. Illinois law states the governor has the sole authority to fill the vacancy. Gov. Rod Blagojevich became the instant kingmaker.

Politicians threw their hats into the ring, wish lists were drawn. Battle lines were drawn, too, as Congressman Bobby Rush and other community organizers voiced concerns that if the appointee wasn't black, there would be a complete white-out in the U.S. senate.

The governor was taking his time naming the Senate appointee, right up until he received that 6 a.m. wake-up call from the FBI agents stationed at his door. They were there to arrest him on charges of wire fraud and bribery.

Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told the world that the governor attempted to put the Senate seat up for sale, sparking a buying frenzy on eBay (of course other jokesters also had senate seats to sell). And then the late night talk show circuit noticed the governor's swagger and his luscious mane of news anchor hair. Add Blagojevich's hypnotic surname to the mix and our governor became a late-night talk show sensation all by himself.

Deep in the midst of the scandal and fresh after posting bail, Gov. Blagojevich went about business as usual and appointed Roland Burris to fill the vacant seat. And, by now, you know the rest of the saga.

So, is the U.S. Senate ready for The Ironman?

If the Senate knew nothing of him before, they know it now: Roland Burris is a fighter. Born in Centralia, Ill., on August 3, 1937, the son and grandson of railroad workers, Burris met opposition head on.

At 16, Burris (who stands five-foot-six, slight but athletic), was the first African American to dip his toes into the Centralia public swimming pool. Even today one can envision the racially charged reaction to that. But instead of hindering Burris, such challenges set the stage for his entry into law and public service.

This man, who will now sit as a U.S. Senator from Illinois, by all accounts, is an excellent choice for the seat. He received a B.A. in political science from Southern Illinois University and a J.D. from Howard University School of Law. As an exchange student, he studied International Law at the University of Hamburg in Germany. During his professional career, Burris has served on several high profile boards.

Burris has not shied away from touting his credentials--and his legal right to fill the vacant Senate seat. Speaking in third person, he said before it became official, "Roland Burris has been legally appointed to the United States Senate. I am currently the junior senator from our state."

True to form, he put in the leg-work--testifying before the House Impeachment Committee that there was absolutely no sweetheart deal between him and the governor; and he argued his validity on the sets of news talk shows and even withstanding a face-off with Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who refused to sign his certificate of appointment.

The move stalled Burris' appointment, but it was White who emerged with far more battle scars. Burris came to White's defense: "Some have criticized Jesse, and I think somewhat unfairly," he says. "He stood for what he believed was right and in our state's best interest. His actions only reinforced what I have always known him to be, an honorable man."

Finally, Democrats Harry Reid and Dick Durbin, the two top leaders in the Senate, released a joint statement verifying that Burris' appointment to the Senate was valid.

While giving his first press conference since learning that he is officially the junior U.S. senator from Illinois, Senator-designate Roland W. Burris was the complex character he's always been--hurried but controlled, excited but contained--as he explained his decision to fight the good fight.

"The single most important reason why I fought to defend this appointment, was because I believed Illinois people didn't deserve to unfairly be punished again, by delaying their right to have full representation and equal voting rights at such a crucial time for our state and our nation," he said. "My motivation is to serve, was pure, and had nothing to do with the scandal that preceded my appointment."

This Chicago scandal surely affirms the legacy of Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone, the most celebrated symbol of Chicago's lawlessness, and one of many reasons why Chicago will never shake its reputation for political corruption.

Burris, however, says things are looking up for the state's tarnished image.

"If you are among the many in Illinois, who are disheartened by the cloud that hangs overhead and darkens our state's image," Burris says, "I ask that you join me in remembering the old saying: "It's always the darkest before the dawn."

Perhaps he's right.

Even as you read this, the world's focus is shifting away from the underbelly of Chicago politics and is re-focusing on our prominent, unifying voice of change--President-elect Barack Obama.

Roland Burris is heading to the U.S. Senate, and the political rumbling has subsided.

For now.