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The Burris exit interview: Great time as Illinois senator, five overseas trips, not shunned by colleagues

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Sen. Roland Burris ends his Senate career at the end of the month, and despite controversy surrounding his tenure, he told me in a farewell interview last week he has had a great time since he was sworn in Jan. 15, 2009.

Burris, it turns out -- and this is the first complete list -- saw a lot of the world in less than two years on the job: In 2009, he was part of official congressional delegations visiting London between Sept. 1 and 6 and Iraq Nov. 19-25, where he met with members of the Illinois National Guard. In 2010, Burris traveled to China, Jan. 12-14, and Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti between April 4 and 10. The government of Taiwan paid for a Burris trip Aug. 16-20.

A member of the Armed Services and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees, Burris, on official business, inspected the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, flew to Fort Hood, Texas, for a memorial service after the 2009 murders there, and checked out military installations in Colorado and Nebraska.

"I mean it is a great group, Lynn. I found it just so, something that I really wanted to do and really had a chance to do, and I am so thankful to God I had a chance to do it, spend time in the United States Senate," Burris told me.

By now, many of you know the Burris back story: After former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9, 2008, for, among other alleged offenses, trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president, Burris was the only one who would take the tainted appointment from Blagojevich.

The Senate vowed never to seat anyone Blagojevich sent -- but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Dick Durbin got Burris to agree to testify before the Illinois House impeachment committee about the circumstances surrounding his appointment. Burris got in trouble over his testimony in Springfield and was slapped by the Senate Ethics Committee for providing "incorrect, inconsistent, misleading or incomplete information," actions that "reflected unfavorably on the Senate."

Burris said he put the admonishment "mess" behind him. "Harry has since expressed an apology to me," Burris said. "That's why you saw me being treated as any other senator."

Durbin and Burris never became close, and Durbin -- as he was during Obama's brief time as a senator -- was and is the go-to senator for anything Illinois needs in Washington. Burris maintained the tradition of the two Illinois senators holding a breakfast each week the Senate is in session for Illinoisans in Washington. On Durbin, Burris said, "I always gave him credit for his leadership role and respect for his experience and expertise."

A main Burris achievement has been the hours he has logged in presiding over the Senate, getting two golden gavels as gifts from colleagues for taking over their time-consuming shifts.

Burris, 73, who never took on a heavy portfolio, had time to wield the gavel and loved being in the chamber. After he decided not to run to keep the seat in 2010 -- Burris had little chance of even winning a Democratic primary -- he wanted to maximize his Senate experience, which included, he said, providing an African-American perspective to his colleagues. Burris was the only African American in the Senate, and no blacks were elected Nov. 4.

"People thought I was being shunned and I was being ignored, and I was having a great time trying to know more and learn the Senate," Burris said.

Burris became friendly with two Republicans -- Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) -- the two liked to talk about clothes, Burris said -- and Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.). "Orrin and I got to be good chatting associates," he said. He was impressed with Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). "I would be in the chair, and I would just get enthralled with Byron's knowledge of the issues and his explanations and his charts."

Asked to list his achievements, Burris told me his proudest actions were his votes for Obama's stimulus package and two unsuccessful fights: his push for a public option on the health-care bill and his battle to expand a small-business program targeting minorities that at present is limited to individuals who have a net worth of less than $750,000. Burris wanted the ceiling raised.

Burris' threat to withhold his vote -- which was needed by Obama -- over the public option earned him his only one-on-one meeting with the president, on Dec. 15, 2009. He didn't blame Obama for not pushing the public option. Said Burris, "The votes were not there."

Burris will leave the Senate owing about $630,000 in legal bills and $130,000 to his political action committee. He's not sure what he will do next and is interested in corporate boards, law firms and lobbying. He was open to a draft for Chicago mayor from African-American activists seeking a consensus candidate, though it never happened.

"Rest assured," Burris told me, "I will stay engaged."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on November 15, 2010 11:32 AM.

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