I go way back with Roland Burris, Governor Blagojevich’s pick to replace Barack Obama in the Senate. I don’t know him—though years ago we took the same plane to New York City. He sat in the seat in front of me and as I recall requested an extra bag of peanuts.
But for as long as I can remember he’s been running for something and I, like thousands of other voters around the state, have had to wrestle with the question: should I vote for Roland Burris?
He first ran statewide back in 1978—my second election as a voter—for state comptroller. I didn’t know what a comptroller was but I cast my ballot for Burris because he was the Democrat—which was something I had in common with thousands of other Chicago voters.
Whatever he did as comptroller he did well enough: in 1982 he was slated for reelection, and I joined most of the rest of the state in voting for him. Of course, at that point his actual responsibilities were only a small part of the picture: Burris was making a name for himself as the mild-mannered African-American who worked well within the system and didn’t make waves, as opposed to the radicals like Mayor Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson. I remember other whites telling me in 1983 that race had nothing to do with their votes against Washington—why, if a black guy like Roland Burris were running for mayor, they’d be happy to support him.
Burris ran for the U.S. Senate in the 1984 primary against Paul Simon. I voted for Simon—didn’t everybody? But I voted for Burris for comptroller again in 1986, and supporting him over Jim Ryan in their 1990 race for attorney general was a no-brainer. Ryan, the former chief prosecutor in Du Page County, had been way too eager to rely on questionable evidence to send Rolando Cruz to death row for the 1983 murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. (Cruz was eventually exonerated and freed.)
In his one term as attorney general, Burris didn’t do anything important, except perhaps help extend Cruz’s wrongful stay on death row. In his defense, Illinois doesn’t have a long history of activist attorney generals. For all its potential, the office is pretty much treated as a stepping-stone to something else. But it only works that way for those who manage to look tough but avoid making big enemies along the way. That’s why its occupants, including the current one, Lisa Madigan, have rarely been able to find any evidence of corruption to prosecute in what just might be the most corrupt state in the union.
Sure enough, Burris had only served three years as AG before he was off and running for governor in 1994. I didn’t vote for him because he was up against Dawn Clark Netsch, who was everything I wanted in a gubernatorial candidate—honest, forthright, courageous, smart. She even had a plan to finance public education. Netsch beat Burris in the primary before Jim Edgar derided her school-funding proposal as the work of a “classic tax-and-spend liberal” and buried her in the general election. A few months later, Edgar sheepishly admitted that perhaps Netsch was right, but his effort to revive her education-funding plan flopped. Fifteen years later our schools are still underfunded.
In 1995 Burris decided to run for mayor. It was a curious move, as the office could be seen as a step down for a guy who’d previously had statewide, even national, aspirations; I’ll bet most people didn’t even know Burris lived in Chicago (he was born and raised in downstate Centralia). In fact, when black activists—desperately searching, as always, for the next Harold Washington to unseat Mayor Daley—initially came a-courting, Burris firmly turned them down. He said he didn’t want to run for mayor. But then he changed his mind, claiming “the people” had drafted him—as if he’d had no say in the matter.
At the time, the best hope for the Daley opposition was Cook County clerk David Orr. But the activists insisted the candidate had to be black, and since Eugene Sawyer, Tim Evans, Danny Davis, and Eugene Pincham had already run and lost, it was Burris’s turn. (Bobby Rush would get his chance to lose in 1999.) The only problem was that by the time Burris changed his mind there was another black guy running—water rec commissioner Joe Gardner—and two black candidates would split the base. So Burris announced he would let Gardner have a one-on-one shot at Daley in the Democratic primary before he, Burris, would run against the winner in the General Election. Think of it as a two-man relay in a one-man mile run.
As expected, Daley whomped Gardner, giving Burris his shot. Boy, did he run a lousy campaign. He either didn’t have any issues or didn’t understand the ones he had. Most of his press coverage came when he ripped the press for not covering him. As for all those white people who’d previously claimed Burris was the kind of black pol they’d support for mayor, well, let’s just say talk is cheap. Burris won only 36 percent of the votes, mine included.
Within a couple of years Burris was running for governor again, this time squaring off in the 1998 Democratic primary against Congressman Glenn Poshard, former associate U.S. attorney general John Schmidt, and former U.S. attorney Jim Burns—a trio Burris once lumped together as “nonqualified white boys.” I thought about voting for Schmidt, the so-called “reform candidate,” but the notion of Mayor Daley’s former chief of staff running as a reformer didn’t add up. I liked Poshard’s personality, but he stood a little to the right of Reagan when it came to gay rights and abortion. I appreciated the fact that Burns used to play basketball at Northwestern, but I’d also grown fond of Burris after watching him lose so many times through the years—sort of the way I started cheering for Jimmy Connors once he was older and slower than everybody else on the tennis court. But alas, Burris faded late and Poshard won, only to lose to George Ryan that November. (Don’t blame me for that one, by the way—I never voted for Ryan, not even for secretary of state.)
My last chance to vote for Burris came in 2002, when he was running in a three-way primary against Blagojevich and Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas. Man, I agonized over that one. Initially, I was determined not to vote for Blago, who seemed like a devious little scoundrel even back then. In retrospect, I probably should have gone with Vallas, but I didn’t like how he’d run the schools: he’d been way too autocratic and seemed like just another Daley. So I was set to vote for Burris one more time. But by then, thanks to Eric Zorn’s columns in the Chicago Tribune, it was pretty obvious that as attorney general Burris had simply ignored evidence of Cruz’s innocence and tried to keep him locked up.
After days of soul-searching, I voted for Blago on the grounds that a scoundrel is not as bad as a schemer who’d let an innocent man fry so he wouldn’t look soft on crime. Yeah, that’s right—I voted for Blago. I talked my wife into voting for him as well. I guess I could say it was Eric Zorn’s fault, but really, like thousands of other fools in this state, I have no one to blame but myself.
So here we are: the scoundrel appointing the schemer to the Senate, Vallas talking about coming back to town to run for Cook County Board president, and Mayor Daley and Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan continuing to rule the city and state like personal fiefdoms.
Like my mother always tells me, the more things change...v
Ben Joravsky discusses his columns weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks. And for even more Joravsky, see our blog Clout City.