CHICAGO — The crisis now threatening Sen. Roland Burris’ political career started with revelations about his entanglements with disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
But it was the way the situation was handled by Burris and his advisers — trapped between competing political and legal demands — that has made the problem much worse and has pushed him to the brink of losing his seat. In multiple interviews, several Senate aides and Burris confidants say the senator was unprepared from a public relations and political perspective to deal with the national media frenzy and ethics problems he now confronts.
“The whole thing got out of hand so quickly and perhaps too quickly for it to be effectively managed,” said Rep. Danny K. Davis, a Chicago Democrat. “I think people have made up their mind ... and I don’t know if there’s a great deal he’s going to be able to do to turn that around.”
A Burris insider was more blunt: “This thing has snowballed into something that can’t go on,” he said. “It’s a disgrace — 30 years of service ... and all of a sudden he’s a criminal?”
Absent an aggressive communications strategy, the press and the public have formed their own opinions that the senator got his new job on false pretenses. As his support crumbled, Burris made a calculated decision not to rile up his backers — many of whom are black — for fear that it would create a vicious racial debate. But this decision has made him appear completely isolated politically, with virtually nobody in Illinois or Washington speaking up for him.
With the perception that Burris was not forthright under oath in describing the circumstances of his Dec. 30 appointment, the junior Democratic senator has now dug himself in a very deep hole that even his backers acknowledge he won’t be able to get out of unless he’s vindicated by a state prosecutor’s office and the Senate Ethics Committee, both of which are now investigating him.
Against this backdrop, Burris and his team continue to fight calls for his resignation, saying doing so would be an admission of guilt when they believe they were guilty only of a poor strategy. Burris, who returns to Washington this week, believes that the worst political hits are behind him, and he plans to continue to build his Senate office by bringing in new staff.
Burris did catch a big break from Chicago’s powerful mayor, Richard M. Daley, who came to Burris’ defense, telling the Chicago Tribune Saturday, “Automatically, every time something happens, people want everybody to resign.”
“There was a feeding frenzy and none of the information was getting through,” lamented one Burris insider about last week’s events. “I think the weakness has been that this hit the senator when he’s been in office for four weeks — when he doesn’t even have a fully formed staff.”
One Burris source said the Democrats who cast quick public judgments are eager to push the him aside because of resentment over how he got seated — Burris faced stiff Democratic objections last month, and many Illinois Democrats already fear he’d be a weak 2010 candidate.
“I don’t think they wanted him to represent the state of Illinois ... this has been an onslaught,” the insider said.
But his team lacked the PR infrastructure and the foresight to get ahead of the story and didn’t realize the gravity of the first revelation.
Indeed, Burris and his staff were not too concerned about a Chicago Sun Times report Feb. 14 that Blagojevich’s brother had asked the senator to raise money for the governor. Burris also told the paper he had submitted a Feb. 5 affidavit laying out all his contacts with Blagojevich associates, admitting much more extensive contacts with the ousted governor than he had laid out in his sworn testimony during the governor’s impeachment proceedings on Jan. 8 and the first affidavit he submitted on Jan. 5.
Burris didn’t believe these revelations to be a bombshell, and he mentioned the situation only in passing to both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and the state’s senior senator, Richard J. Durbin, on the Senate floor Feb. 13. Burris didn’t even give Durbin the affidavit before the senior senator left on a weeklong Senate trip abroad.
But the Feb. 14 report suddenly dominated the news, and Burris’ team hastily arranged a Feb. 15 press conference to argue he had been consistent in all his statements and drafted the affidavit after reviewing his previous statements. But that turned into a combative appearance, with Burris struggling to explain the distinction he was trying to make between expressing passing interest in the Senate seat and lobbying to get the appointment.
Burris also seems to have erred in having his attorney, Timothy Wright, stand behind him to help answer questions, which created an appearance that he had done something wrong. “Bad idea,” said one Chicago Democratic politician.
“They are used to playing fast and loose in Chicago, but that doesn’t work here [in the Senate],” said one Democratic Senate aide.
Then on Feb. 16 in Peoria, Ill., Burris answered many reporters’ questions, but he let slip a revelation that caught his team completely unprepared: that he actually tried to raise money for the governor at the same time he was expressing interest in the Senate seat. With that, the Senate Ethics Committee decided to start an inquiry, and a perjury investigation was launched in Illinois.
Some of Burris’ advisers wanted to counter the frenzy with a public-relations blitz, including putting together an extensive timeline of everything Burris did to get the Senate seat, in an effort to show that all of his contacts with Blagojevich were completely innocuous. But the legal team wanted Burris to keep quiet, so the senator cut short questions at his Feb. 18 speech at the City Club of Chicago, and he refused to speak to the media for the rest of the week.
But pressure kept building on Burris daily. On Feb. 18, Durbin told the Tribune that Burris’ future was “in question,” and on Feb. 19, he told the Sun Times that Burris was extending the “Blagojevich burlesque.” On Feb. 20, Gov. Pat Quinn called on Burris to resign.
There will be another fresh frenzy this week — the Washington press corps will descend on the senator with every entry and exit from the Capitol building, and any comments he makes will be scrutinized not only by the media but also by ethics investigators in the Senate and legal officials in Illinois.
The hot glare of publicity that helped Burris gain entry into the Senate back in January, as one GOP aide said, may very well “beat him right out of the Senate.”
Martin Kady II contributed to this story.