Senator Roland W. Burris Remarks
-As prepared for delivery-
City Club of Chicago, February 18th, 2009
Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. Thank you to Jay Dougherty, and to all the members of this club.
I would also like to say a special thank you to my old friend, Alderman Ed Burke, for his very warm introduction.
There's a lot I want to talk about today. I want to tell you a little about my first month in the United States Senate and what I've learned.
I want to tell you about the important legislation that we have been able to pass, and what it means for the people of Illinois.
And I want to address the controversy that has seemed to push all that positive news off the front pages.
One month ago, I couldn't have imagined myself standing here. And I'm sure even fewer of you could have imagined it. But it is an incredibly exciting time to be in government.
Over the course of my career, I have seen times of great prosperity, and times of crisis in this country. But it is the opportunities we seize, every bit as much as the challenges we face, that define us--as individuals and as a nation.
When I first arrived in Washington, I had my doubts--I was at first turned away from the Senate, but as I stood there in the rain under the shadow of the Capitol building I thought about those families who were struggling all over Illinois to pay their bills, to keep their homes, and to care for their children -- all the while worrying about keeping their jobs and their healthcare.
I was inspired by their determination to get up and fight each day, and I saw in the Senate the incredible potential to change their lives for the better.
From the day I was sworn in to the office, it has been the honor of my lifetime to serve the people of Illinois in the Senate, just as I have been honored to serve as Illinois Comptroller and Illinois Attorney General.
After having spent so many years working on the executive side of government, the legislative side presented some new challenges. The issues our nation faces are daunting, but I also grasped the possibilities.
What most struck when I arrived in Washington, have been the stories people have told me--filled with courage and determination, steely grit and honest hope. I have found that the key to being able to tackle the large issues is sometimes simply to listen to the small stories--and the people of Illinois are talking.
In all of the excitement surrounding my first month in office, it is the incredible interest that people have in their federal government which has most overwhelmed me.
In fact--it even overwhelmed my phone lines and the whole Capitol Hill switchboard for a time!
They call, they write, they come to the office, and they keep coming - all wanting to participate, to lend their voice, to join the excitement and the work of rebuilding and remaking America.
And that, at the end of the day, is what the job of a Senator is all about--to listen to your constituents and to be their voice in Washington.
Now in all my time in Illinois government, and now as Senator, I'm convinced that the single most important role of any public official is to work to improve the quality of life for our citizens. And that often means tackling the difficult issues; and the most complex and challenging issue we face today is our nation's economy.
I have spent the last few days traveling the state, talking to local officials in Peoria and Bloomington, meeting with union leaders, college presidents at Illinois State and Bradley Universities, and meeting with the courageous young men and women of the 182nd Airlift Wing and the Peoria National Guard.
And while each story they tell is unique, they share a common theme--people are feeling the economic pinch, and are looking to Washington for relief.
It is no surprise to anyone in this room that our economy is in crisis - that we are losing more jobs and income and industry every day. And that touches every family in Illinois in ways large and small.
Since December 2007 alone, America has lost 3.6 million jobs. That number isn't just another statistic--that is 3.6 million people -a number greater than the entire population of Chicago!
Economists tell us that these financial indicators haven't been this bad in 75 years - since the Great Depression. But talk to any of the working folks around Illinois and that's hardly news to them.
Household incomes have dropped, while the price of groceries, gas, healthcare and tuition have all risen - forcing already strapped families to do more with less.
Brenda Gill of South Holland, wrote to me recently saying she felt as if our economy, our jobs, and the lives of our nation's families were crumbling before her eyes, and that she was tired of watching her friends, neighbors, and family members lose their jobs, their savings, and their faith in our system.
And who can blame Brenda, or the millions like her, for feeling overwhelmed by it all? Our nation's housing market has collapsed, our credit markets are frozen, and on Wall Street, the stock market has lost an unimaginable $7 Trillion - 7 Trillion Dollars!
But looking back and assessing blame - whether it's on Wall Street, the previous administration's policies, or on our own overspending ways - doesn't do anything to help the people of Illinois who are desperately looking to their government for help.
In times like these the government needs to act.
Timing is a funny thing in politics. For just when we seem to be at our darkest economic hour, a new wind is blowing across Washington.
The change that we all heard so much about during last year's campaign has swept not only President Obama into power, but has sent a whole new team of our fellow Illinoisans and Chicagoans to Washington as well:
Arnie Duncan, Ray LaHood, Desiree Rogers, Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emmanuel, and all the rest - all bringing that unique determination of the 'City That Works' and applying it to the challenges of America.
Last week, under the leadership of President Obama and the Democrat- led Congress, we passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: a sweeping economic recovery plan that will create and protect American jobs, invest in America's future, and provide much needed tax-relief to the middle-class and small businesses.
Now, having passed the bill, we need to make sure it works in the ways in which we intended it to, bringing federal resources to bear in the hardest hit regions, and in ways that will have the most impact on our economy and the people that need it most.
That is the measure by which I hope I am judged in the Senate: whether I am able to make a difference for the people of Illinois --whether I can, through my actions, improve their quality of life.
During the short time I have been in the Senate, we have passed extraordinary legislation: CHIP that expands healthcare for children, the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that levels the playing field for pay equity, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that gives us a powerful legislative tool to jump-start the American economic engine.
CHIP, The Children's Health Insurance Program, provides health insurance to more than ten million children whose families have been hurt most by the downturn in the economy. CHIP is an important first step toward our commitment to ensure every American has access to quality, affordable, health care.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which we passed last month, makes it easier for workers to file claims of pay discrimination by effectively extending the filing deadline.
Lilly Ledbetter discovered, on the verge of her retirement from a Goodyear plant, that she had been paid 40 percent less than her male peers. She knew unfairness when she saw it and was willing to do something about it because it was the right thing to do, plain and simple.
And the landmark $787 billion stimulus package which Congress passed, and that President Obama signed into law just yesterday. A plan that promises to create or save 3.5 million jobs. 148,000 new jobs right here in Illinois.
I'm proud to have cast my votes for these pieces of legislation. They are testaments to what Congress and the White House can achieve when we work together, and it represents some long awaited relief for working class families around the country and here in Illinois.
And my personal challenge as the new Senator is to continue to act in the interest of my constituents, to always be mindful of their stories, to listen to their needs, and to work in ways both big and small to improve the quality of their lives each and every day.
Friends, I'm new in Washington, they don't know me out there yet. Trust and relationships take time to build. But my record in Illinois goes back decades, as do my friendships with so many of you.
Thirty years I have been in service to this state--and you know me--You know the real Roland! If I had done the things I've been accused of I would be too embarrassed to stand up here in front of all of you...my friends.
But I have a history with you, a record that I have built over a lifetime. Thirty years in public life and never a hint of scandal. And in all that time in service to Illinois, I never asked for anything in return until today.
I ask you to stop the rush to judgment. You know the real Roland. I have done nothing wrong and I have nothing to hide
Let's talk about the information in the media, and about the misinformation they are reporting. If you look at the facts--just the facts without all the spin and the sensationalism, the issue is as simple as 1 -2 -3.
Number One: YES. Yes, I told people around the Governor that I wanted to serve in the Senate.
YES-I told my friends, I told the media, I told anyone who would listen that YES I was interested in serving Illinois as a Senator. I told that to the committee, and I said that in my affidavit.
Number Two: NO. No I did not have conversations about my appointment - actually being appointed-- with anyone other than the Governor's attorney. No one else reached out to me to talk about the appointment, and that is in my affidavit too.
Number Three: YES. Yes, the Governor's brother reached out to me during his fundraising calls. But I didn't give a single dollar.
So to anyone--any citizen, any politician, any committee, organization or agency, let me say this again: I have nothing to hide, and I will continue to be transparent.
When the Sangamon County State's Attorney would like to question me, I will be there. I will answer anything asked of me by the United States Senate Ethics Committee. If federal authorities would like to talk to me about the contacts I have had, I will cooperate in any way I can. I welcome the scrutiny.
What I will no longer do after today, now that there is an ongoing investigation, is engage the media and have facts drip out in selective sound bites.
I invite the scrutiny because we need to get the focus back on the people of this state where it belongs.
And I invite it because integrity, honor, and character are not easy to come by.
These things are built over a lifetime with your own hands.
They are demonstrated by your family, your friends, your deeds, and the work you leave behind
I have the support of a loving family
Gratified to have friends in the room that I have not only made, but have earned
I have shown integrity throughout my career
Illinois, after 30 years together, you know the real Roland.