Chicago 1, U.S. Senate 0

by Ken Feltman 

We don’t have a problem with him as an individual.
– Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Really? No problem with Roland Burris? No problem with the about-to-be-junior senator from Illinois? That’s not how it sounded recently – as recently as a few days ago, as a matter of fact. 

We can learn a lot about the Democratic leaders in the Senate by Roland Burris’ quick journey from political pariah to celebrity status. There are obvious winners and losers in this saga. But why did the winners win and the losers lose? Those answers can tell us who might win and lose next time. 

Based on this bungled disaster for the Democrats, the smart money won’t be on Harry Reid to win. Now, he has the smell of the loser upon him. He was over his head. He did not comprehend the consequences of what he was doing. First, he seemed petty and irascible. He was shooting from the hip. He was a cross, finger-pointing enforcer of dusty precedent. He was insisting on upholding rules and laws that – it turned out – did not exist. To many – especially African Americans – he seemed a throwback to yesterday. Read his statement about Burris again: “We don’t have a problem with him as an individual.” Wasn’t he aware of the echo in his words? That echo rings loudly, patronizingly, possibly irrevocably in many ears: “Some of my best friends are black.” 

Worse, Reid’s ineptness brought others lower. For example, he has tarnished his chief deputy, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. How could Durbin have made the mistake of following Reid’s lead in dissing Burris? Durbin comes from Springfield, Illinois. He is not of Chicago. He depends on large Democratic majorities in Chicago to win elections but he has always distanced himself from Chicago politics. He did not see it coming. He thought he could earn points with Senate Democrats by supporting Reid in upholding the Senate’s right to deny a seat to anyone the “club” chose to exclude. 

President-elect Obama was forced to make the same about-face that Reid and Durbin made. Obama did not need this. He wanted to score a few points with Reid, who had earlier scolded Obama by pointing out that Democratic senators do not work for the White House. 

Was this a battle worth fighting? 

Reid tends to pick fights over distracting things. He and Durbin chose to make a stand against an affable, engaging African American from Centralia, Illinois. They did not need to take this stand, which risked alienating the Congressional Black Caucus and African Americans. They seemed anxious to make things difficult for Burris as they attacked scandal-ridden Governor Rod Blagojevich. They were vocal but unready. 

Burris was quiet but ready. His home in Centralia is not far from St. Louis, Missouri, and is about a million political miles away from Chicago. Burris rose in Illinois Democratic politics because he learned the folkways and mores of Chicago. Thus, when the shrewd and cunning Blagojevich happened to be caught in a life-and-death struggle, Burris saw opportunity. He advanced his name for appointment to the Senate. At first, Blagojevich ignored Burris. Then a funny thing happened: The case against the embattled governor stalled. 

The government asked for an extension to bring an indictment. Blagojevich saw his opportunity. But Burris saw his first. Blagojevich sought out an up-and-coming black Chicago congressman. He asked the congressman to take the Senate seat vacated by Obama. No, the congressman said. He believed that he would be tainted by the governor’s scandal, as Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., and others have been tainted by association with Blagojevich. That was the conventional wisdom. Burris had friends press his case again. This time, the governor listened. He was out of options. Blagojevich was so eager to outwit his adversaries that he turned to Burris. 

Blagojevich believed that he had outsmarted everybody. He was right. He had also, incidentally, appointed one of the best qualified persons available. The rap against Burris is that he has lost several elections. Actually, they were Democratic primaries – and Burris has friends who suggest that he lost because the party leaders wanted a white candidate instead. One of those whites was Blagojevich. Now, in the only way he could, Burris had secured his ticket to the Senate. All he had to do was distance himself from Blagojevich – which he did immediately – and let the Senate leaders make fools of themselves – which they did immediately. Burris turned the taint around: He was Mr. Clean. The sanctimonious Senate leaders became the tainted ones. 

Turned away at the door 

Unassuming, never confrontational, Burris endured the indignities meted out by the Senate Democrats. He stood outside the Capitol Building in the rain after he was turned away. Black schoolchildren were turned away by the authorities years ago. Didn’t Reid understand the symbolism? Burris did – and he used it to win. Burris accomplished his objective. Race has been used against him many times in his life. Burris has learned that the best way to counter racism is to turn it around, into an advantage. 

Who supported Burris? Not the Senate Democrats. Not the incoming president. Not the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who wanted his son appointed. Certainly not Blagojevich, who thought he was using Burris to stick it to everybody else. So Burris, a natural conciliator who works easily with Republicans and contrary members of his own Democratic party, owes nothing to anyone. 

Tell me, isn’t that the kind of senator the hypocritical Democratic leaders in Washington and Chicago said they wanted? Yes, it is – except they never dreamed they would get Burris. They never expected it could turn out this way. 

Somehow, the pols lost control and the good guy won. 

Full disclosure  

Ken Feltman was introduced to Roland Burris many years ago by the administrative assistant of Democratic Senator Alan Dixon of Illinois. Feltman has commented in previous newsletters on the Lieutenant Columbo-like nature of Roland Burris as he navigates the political rapids. Often in the past, while other politicians congratulated themselves on their craftiness and negotiating skills, Burris quietly walked away the winner. The Democrats in the Senate had no antidote for Burris’ abilities.  

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Know as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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