Monday, March 16, 2009

The New Yorker on Roland Burris

There's some local history in this piece. Worth a nice little gander:
On the South Side, and in other neighborhoods with large African-American populations, Daley contracted much of his patronage operation to what was known as the “submachine,” a group of compliant black politicians, led by Congressman William Dawson. Even though Dawson made sure that blacks received a share of government jobs, Jackson and others in the nascent civil-rights movement noted that the submachine had no interest in challenging Daley on broader issues, like fair housing and school integration. When Jackson started attending Democratic Party meetings, he said, “I began to raise certain questions.”

So, in 1967, did a young Harvard Law School graduate and Korean War veteran named William Cousins, Jr. “I was an independent Democrat,” Cousins told me. “I was never affiliated with the regular Democratic organization, which we call the machine.” Even though Cousins’s neighborhood on the South Side was largely African-American, there were no blacks in positions of political leadership. Cousins decided to run for alderman—the Chicago term for a member of the City Council. “I asked Roland if he would serve as my campaign chairman, even though he had never before been actively involved in politics,” Cousins said. “But he had served on a neighborhood conservation committee, to see that repairs were being made on our infrastructure, and I was impressed with him.” At the time, the district included much of Chatham, the neighborhood where Burris still lives, in a home once owned by the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

In those days, Burris displayed the energy and enterprise that are indispensable for a political career. By 1967, the year Cousins ran for alderman, Burris had become the first black vice-president at Continental Illinois National Bank, in Chicago. “I was very active in all types of community groups,” he told me. “Like the Avalon Park Community Council. That’s where I met Bill Cousins. We were trying to fight City Hall about the broken curbs, the potholes, and the torn-up sidewalks. And so I did a report, about every pothole in that section, every broken curb in that section, all bad sidewalks.” City Hall responded. “Within six or seven months, they began to repair those broken streets and sidewalks and curbs,” Burris said. “And that kind of impressed Cousins.” With Burris’s help, Cousins won his race for alderman. (Cousins went on to become a widely admired Illinois judge.)

In 1968, emboldened by Cousins’s success, Burris decided to run for state representative, but lost to a machine-backed candidate. Four years later, an executive with Montgomery Ward named Dan Walker mounted an independent Democratic bid for governor of Illinois, and Burris signed on to help. Walker won a surprise victory, and Burris joined his staff as a director of Central Management Services, a major administrative job. When Walker ran for reĆ«lection, in 1976, Burris decided to run for comptroller, a statewide post. But Mayor Daley, who despised Walker, put together a slate of candidates to run against the Governor and his team, and Walker and Burris were swamped in the 1976 primaries. (Walker later went to prison for his role in a savings-and-loan scam that took place after his term as governor.)

Jesse Jackson hired Burris as the executive director of his civil-rights organization, then known as Operation PUSH. “As this black thing kept growing, a guy like Burris ends up on the ticket as a civil but nonthreatening guy,” Jackson told me. “He was a black in Dan Walker’s cabinet. And when it was over, he didn’t have a job. Other campaign members had jobs and consultancies and this and that. And so our board hired Roland. One, because he was competent. Two, because, for our own movement credibility, to have a guy like Roland as the chief operating officer in some sense made it easier to get support.” Burris worked for Jackson for less than a year. “It didn’t last very long, because he moved on to his political work,” Jackson said. “He served us well, and it was a kind of mutually beneficial deal. There was nothing acrimonious about it. And Burris knows how to talk to white people and black people. He is not seen as a marcher, a protester, one who will scale walls.”

Because of a quirk in the law, the result of a change to the state constitution, the comptroller job became open again just two years later, in 1978, when the incumbent decided to run for a different post. This election was a turning point for Burris. He had given up banking for politics, yet he had never won a race. “I talk to my wife, and I say, ‘You know, honey, I want to try to go for comptroller,’ ” he recalled. “And she was saying, ‘No, you lost,’ and this other stuff. My wife looked at me one day and said, ‘I’ll tell you what. The only way that I can support you running for comptroller again is that you run with the Party’s endorsement.’ That threw down the gauntlet.” Burris met with Eugene Sawyer, a Daley stalwart and an African-American, who later served briefly as Chicago’s mayor.

“We’d see each other on occasion, and we’d chat, and Gene said, ‘You oughta think about joining us.’ And so I said, ‘No, I’m going to keep my independent stripe,’ ” Burris recalled. But after the conversation with his wife, Burris went to Sawyer with a different message. “I walked into Gene Sawyer’s office in July of 1977,” Burris said. “Made an appointment with him, walked in. ‘Yeah, Roland, what do you want?’ ‘Well, Alderman’—he was alderman then, Sixth Ward—‘I’d like to join your organization. What do you do?’ ‘You’re in!’ ‘What does it cost me?’ And he says nothing. And he looks at me and says, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to run for state comptroller.’ Gene Sawyer looked at me and said”—Burris rapped his knuckles on the table—“ ‘Fine! Let’s do it, Roland.’ Just like that! He says, ‘I’d always wanted you to come on around.’ ”

T he Daley machine chose its slate of candidates at meetings of the state central committee of the Democratic Party. Daley’s supporters dominated the proceedings, but now and then a few reformers also won election as committeemen and so were allowed to attend, if not influence, the slating meetings. Alan Dobry, who was a veteran of Chicago reform politics, attended the state committee meeting in 1977. “Roland was trying to get put up for Illinois comptroller,” Dobry recalled. “When he got up and spoke to the central committee, the first thing they said to him was ‘You started out as Bill Cousins’s campaign manager, what about that?’ But Roland assured everyone that he wasn’t an independent like Bill Cousins anymore, and was now a faithful member of the machine. Then they asked where does his committeeman stand on this? Gene Sawyer got up and said, ‘Roland is not an independent; he is a faithful member of the Sixth Ward Democratic Party organization.’ ” (One of the first people Burris hired to his staff as a U.S. senator was Sawyer’s nephew.)

And so, with the machine’s help, Burris realized the second of his career ambitions, by winning the statewide race for comptroller in 1978. The job has few major responsibilities, aside from auditing various branches of state government, and Burris began planning a run for higher office. He lost a Democratic primary for the Senate to Paul Simon in 1984 and served three terms as comptroller, until 1991. When the state’s attorney general ran for governor in 1990, Burris got the Democratic nomination for attorney general, again with machine support. He won the election, and critics saw his pact with the machine as a sign that he had put his ambition ahead of his values. “He would do what he was told, and stay out of trouble,” Dobry said. “Nobody took him seriously. Every time he got one of these state jobs, he took care of the machine in his patronage. The machine always liked having one of their own as attorney general.” According to Bernard Stone, a longtime Chicago alderman, Burris is “a very personable guy, and he never had the reputation of having his hand out. He was always a go-along guy. When he’s run with Party backing, he’s won; when he ran against the Party, he lost. It’s as simple as that.”
Read the whole thing!

Via Capitol Fax that also comments on a recent column by the Sun-Times' Laura Washington. She talks about next year's race for Burris' Senate Seat.

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