The man appointed to fill President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat arrived at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday hoping to be sworn in as a Democratic senator from Illinois. A short time later, Roland Burris stepped outside in the rain and announced to reporters that he had been rejected.
"I presented my credentials to the Secretary of the Senate and [was] advised that my credentials were not in order and I would not be accepted and I would not be seated and I would not be permitted on the floor," Burris said. "I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation. I will now consult with my attorneys, and we will determine what our next step will be."
The Democratic leadership in the Senate had said it wouldn't seat Burris because he was appointed by Illinois' embattled governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who is caught up in a corruption scandal. Burris' political career had been dormant until the controversial appointment last week thrust him into the national spotlight.
Since then, senators and others have railed against the appointment — calling any Blagojevich choice tainted — and Burris has gone on the offense, touting his credentials to reporters and at a rally of supporters.
"I spent 20 years in Illinois government. There is nobody in this state who knows Illinois the way I know it. They couldn't have sent a better person to Washington to represent the 13 million people of the state of Illinois than myself," he said.
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois turned down the appointment when it was offered to him, but it's no surprise that Burris stepped into the Senate fray, says Alan Gitelson, a political science professor at Loyola University Chicago. He says the former attorney general wanted to go much further than he had in public life.
"At the age of 71, he's obviously very much a senior member of the political scene in Illinois. His political history was his past history, and this was an opportunity that I doubt in any sense of the word he was going to be able to turn down," Gitelson said.
Besides, it's no secret that the small, bespectacled Burris has a strong ego — not uncommon among politicians, but it has played out in interesting ways for Burris. Both Burris' daughter and son, Rolanda and Roland II, are named after him. And on the wall of a mausoleum that he owns at a Chicago cemetery, there's a list of his accomplishments — with room for more. At the top of the list, carved in stone, is the word "trailblazer."
There's nothing wrong with that, Gitelson said. "He has been a trailblazer. What happened, though, was that he began to fade away."
Burris has been out of the political scene for many years, but he began trying to break barriers in his youth. As a teenager in Centralia, his hometown in southern Illinois, he attempted to integrate a local swimming pool. After he graduated from Howard University law school, he became a banker. He later made history in Illinois politics, becoming the first African-American to win a statewide office. He was Illinois comptroller for three terms and then became the state's attorney general.
Roosevelt University political science professor Paul Green has known Burris since his first campaigns.
"In those days, he always wore a vested suit, and Roland was the party guy. Roland was the insider against the community-organizing people. And now these community-organizing people are rallying to Roland's side for the first time ever," Green said.
Many of those supporters say an African-American should fill the seat vacated by Obama. While Burris has a reputation of being more of a benign politician than an activist, most pundits in the state agreed that he understands the political system.
String Of Campaign Losses
In his race for attorney general, Burris supported abortion rights and gay rights — a plus in this moderate state. And he bested a conservative Republican.
Rob Warden, head of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, says Burris took a wrong turn when, as attorney general, he failed to acknowledge mistakes made in the prosecution of convicted murderer Rolando Cruz, who was later exonerated in the 1993 killing of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico.
"He wanted to appear tough on crime," Warden said. "And he thought, probably, that the public is not going to quite understand what's gone wrong here and why this case produced the wrong result, and therefore chose to ignore it."
After his term as attorney general ended, Burris had a string of losing campaigns: He had three failed bids to become Illinois governor and lost a bid for Senate. In the mid-1990s, Buriss also waged an unsuccessful run as an independent against Chicago's incumbent Democratic mayor, Richard Daley. Daley won in a landslide.
Since then, Burris has worked as a private attorney and has run a lobbying and consulting firm. Now, he has moved back into the political spotlight with the hopes of rekindling his career.