WASHINGTON--There will be no blacks in the U.S. Senate when he leaves office at the end of the month, a fact outgoing Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) called "unacceptable" and "troubling" in his farewell speech Thursday.
Burris, the only African American in the Senate, will be replaced on Nov. 29 by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who won election earlier this month to a six-year term starting next year and also for the several weeks remaining of Barack Obama¹s original Senate term.
In Burris' remarks, delivered at noon to a nearly empty Senate chamber--at the most there were four senators plus Burris and Senate staffers, including an old friend from Illinois, Terrance Gainer, the former director of the Illinois State Police, who is the Senate Sergeant at Arms.
Burris did not mention the controversy surrounding his appointment by the impeached and now convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. And while he thanked Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and senate staff down to the waiters, Burris made no mention of Illinois' senior Senator, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Because of the uproar surrounding his appointment from the tainted Blagojevich, Durbin and Burris never became close.
Durbin was not present for the speech.
When Burris was done, two senators came up to hug him--New Mexico Democrats Sen. Tom Udall, like Burris a former state Attorney General and Sen. Jeff Bingaman--plus Gainer and Nancy Erickson, the secretary of the Senate.
Burris wore a red tie and red handkerchief for his last Senate speech after
22 months and a few weeks in office, sworn in on Jan. 15, 2009.
"Throughout 220 years of Senate history and 111 Congresses, only six black
Americans have been able to serve," Burris said. "This is troubling in its own right."
Of the six, three are from Illinois and all are Chicago Democrats: former
Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Obama and Burris.
"When the one hundred and twelfth Congress is sworn in this coming January, there will not be a single black American who takes the oath of office in this chamber," Burris said.
"This is simply unacceptable. We can - and we will-- and we must do better.
"In this regard, and in any other, our political progress has proven less accessible - and less representative - than it ought to be, and although I have never allowed my race to define me, in a sense, it has meant that my constituency as a United States Senator has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Illinois," he said
"Letters, emails, telephone calls have poured into my office from black Americans from all across the country. And at times, as I have tried to bring their voices into this chamber, I have acutely felt the absence of any other black person to represent them," Burris said.
Burris also took aim at the partisanship that has gridlocked the Senate.
"Our government hardly resembles the diverse country it was elected to
represent. Partisan bickering has driven moderates out of both parties, and
made principle compromise more difficult for those who remain.
"Too often, our politics seems to have become a zero-sum game.
"It's easy for people to feel that the best argument, or the plainest truth,
won't necessarily win the day any more. And such a destructive political
environment, people are often left wondering who will speak up for them," he said.
Burris also urged passage of the controversial, "Don¹t Ask, Don¹t Tell¹¹
(DADT) legislation to allow gay men and lesbians to openly serve in the
Burris, who can vote until he leaves the Senate at the end of the month,
said he very much wanted to support DADT as one of his last votes. Burris
quipped that he was so in favor of the measure to let soldiers serve no
matter their sexual orientation, he just might come back.
Joked Burris, "Don¹t be surprised if I don't come back, because I'm from Chicago, and I'll vote twice."