Democrat – IL Sen. Roland Burris

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Newly-appointed Illinois Senator comments on whether he’s the best person to hold on to the senate seat in two years.

Prior to his appointment as Illinois' junior U.S. Senator, Roland Burris had a history of firsts. He was the first African American elected to statewide office in Illinois—as comptroller—and the first African American national bank examiner for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. His public service also includes state attorney general. A native of the state, Burris studied International Law at the University of Hamburg in Germany as an exchange student and holds a J.D. from Howard University School of Law.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Tonight we begin with newly appointed U.S. Senator Roland Burris, who now holds the seat vacated by President Barack Obama. Senator Burris has achieved so many notable firsts in his political career, including his position as Illinois’ first African-American attorney general. He joins us tonight from Washington. Senator Burris, an honor to have you on the program. Thank you for your time, sir.

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Senator Roland Burris: It’s my pleasure, Tavis, it’s my pleasure.

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Tavis: Let me start by asking how you’re getting along. You getting acquainted? You find your way to the bathroom yet?

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Burris: I found the bathrooms; I’m now just trying to find the committee rooms and the other rooms, Tavis. (Laughter.) It’s really interesting. It’s really challenging to get your way around, but it is really exciting and a lot of work. I’ve hit the ground running since January 15th. I was sworn in, I think, at 1:00; I cast my first vote by 5:00 that evening and I’ve been voting ever since.

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Tavis: What committees are you on?

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Burris: I have three committees — Armed Services, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. And of course I will be selecting a subcommittee on two of those committees, on Homeland Security and on Veterans Affairs — I’m sorry, on Armed Services. But I haven’t selected my subcommittees yet.

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Tavis: A couple of those are some plum assignments, Armed Services among them. You’ve got some nice committees that you’ve been assigned to, which leads me to ask how you’re being treated by your colleagues right about now, given how you were treated initially. Are they treating you okay?

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Burris: Tavis, the treatment by my colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, is just unbelievable. They opened their arms to me. They are assisting me in any way that I would need it, and they’re just being as professional and as warm and personal as you can be.

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Some of them, I already know. I’m a former attorney general, and I think we must have at least three of the AGs that we served together and four or five of the old fellows like Lieberman that was an AG some time ago. And of course I was with all the comptrollers and treasurers, so it’s really a family here and they’re treating me like a good member of the family.

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Tavis: Have you had time or do you suspect this will come somewhere down the road, where you will have, really, the time to kind of consider, to come up with your own storyline for what you make of the journey that you had to endure to get to this place. Is that something you’ve started thinking about, or are you going to wait till years from now in your retirement to consider what this storyline is, as you see it?

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Burris: Well, Tavis, it’s been a long road to get here. This started when I was 15 years old, in a small, southern Illinois town by the name of Centralia, Illinois, where at the age of 15 I set two goals. One goal was to be a lawyer, and the other goal was to be a statewide elected official of Illinois. I became a lawyer in 1963, and I became a statewide elected official in 1978 — 25 years from the time I set that goal.

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And of course then you always want to progress, because my commitment, Tavis, was to be a public servant. And you interviewed me when I was running for governor a couple times in my state. I tried to be governor but I couldn’t get past the Democratic primaries.

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I’ve never lost a general election to a Republican candidate. I won four of those. My elections were lost to Democratic primaries, where we have closed primary elections, because Republicans, Independents and Democrats vote for me when I get nominated by my party to be their standard bearer for that particular office.

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So I’m looking forward, of course, to making a decision on what I will do in the very near future about continuing on with my Senate seat.

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Tavis: You’ve said so much now there are three things I want to go back and unpack right quick, if I can. In no particular order, Senator Burris, what is your timeline for making a decision about whether or not you’re going to actually run to hold on to this seat? That would be question number one.

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Burris: Early spring.

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Tavis: Okay.

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Burris: Early spring.

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Tavis: All right. But right now — are you leaning any particular way right about now? Or if you were, you wouldn’t tell me?

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Burris: Right now, Tavis, right now I’m learning the Senate, I’m learning the rules, I’m learning the process, I’m trying to build a staff. I haven’t even visited my offices in the state of Illinois. I’ve not been to my Chicago office and there are four offices around the state. So I have to get out and get around and hold my town hall meetings, meet with the various constituencies, before there are any type of decisions made in that regard.

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Because I need to listen to what the issues are that are impacting the people. I know some of them, but I want to hear from them.

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Tavis: Beyond hearing what those issues are, while you told me you’re going to make a decision in the spring, can you tell me what that decision will ultimately be based on?

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Burris: (Laughs.) Yeah, it’ll be based on the reaction that I receive and the support that I’m getting and the encouragement that I will be getting to run or not to run.

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Tavis: Okay, that’s fair, that’s fair. Issue number two: One of the rubs against you, for those who did not support your candidacy, for those who didn’t think you were the best choice — you know this better than I do — one of the rubs against you was that you were not the best candidate to run statewide and to win.

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You’ve addressed in this conversation earlier on the success you’ve had running for attorney general statewide in Illinois. What have you to say about those who think that you aren’t the best person to hold on to this seat in two years?

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Burris: Well, none of the people that were being talked about, other than maybe one of them, had ever been elected statewide. I have been elected, as I indicated earlier, elected statewide four times, and I even ran for the United States Senate against Paul Simon in ’84 and I lost the primary to Paul Simon. And I don’t think anyone in Illinois, whether they’re in office currently or would be thinking about running for office, has as much knowledge about my state as I possess.

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I was born in raised in downstate and lived upstate, educated at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, lived in Chicago, and have continued to be very active throughout the state on various other programs and community projects. So I have a great working knowledge of Illinois, and should I run, I would be prepared to take on any one of those persons who say that I would not be the best standard-bearer for our party to hold on to the seat.

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Tavis: At this point in your career, with all due respect to all you’ve done, do you really want to work this hard at this point in your life?

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Burris: (Laughs.) Tavis, to be a United States senator and serving the public, that is my legacy, and that’s what I want to do. As the old saying goes, if I have to — the good lord take me out of here with my boots on, serving the people, I’ll be the happiest man in the world.

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Tavis: You mentioned earlier the couple of times you ran for governor in the state of Illinois, and when you mention the word “governor” it makes me, of course, think of the current governor of the state of Illinois, at least for the moment, Governor Blagojevich.

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I’m not going to ask you to go back, and I don’t think it makes sense for me to go back and ask you to rehash all what was. We know that story — been there, done that. But let me ask you what you make of the process that is going on in your state right now — the impeachment process that’s going on right now. As we speak, we now know that Governor Blagojevich has asked to at least make a statement in these impeachment proceedings.

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He doesn’t want to bring witnesses and all that stuff, but he’s asked to at least be heard, to make a statement, in these hearings. What’s your sense of what’s happening with Governor Blagojevich in your state at the moment?

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Burris: By the way, he beat me in the primary in ’02 for governor. I don’t know if you’re aware of that.

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Tavis: I am very much aware of it.

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Burris: I lost to him in ’02, and of course the legislature has a constitutional duty, as the governor had a constitutional duty. And I see them carrying out their constitutional responsibility as they see it. They were elected by the people, they saw that there was some misdeeds or alleged misdeeds and misgivings and various steps that the governor had taken, and they brought about articles of impeachment and they impeached him.

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And then they moved over to the Senate, where he’s in the process of now being tried. It’s the first time it ever happened in the history of our state, but of course that’s what they have taken the oath of office to do — to uphold the laws of the state of Illinois and the constitution of the state of Illinois, and I think that that’s what the senators and representatives are doing. They’re doing their duty.

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Tavis: Indeed they are doing their duty, as you put it. I guess the question is whether or not you think that the person who appointed you to this seat ought to be impeached and removed from office.

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Burris: That is not my decision to make, Tavis. I have no input into that, so therefore it would do no good for me to even comment on that. The legislators are proceeding in that fashion and they will do what they have to do.

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And remember this: In our system, being an old appellate prosecutor, that you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty. And an impeachment and a conviction and a removal from office is not a criminal trial; it is a process to remove a person from office. That’s what that is.

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Tavis: Finally, what’s your sense of the impact that this has had on the people of Illinois, and whether or not, whatever that impact is, it has cast a shadow, or put another way, put a stain on the Senate seat that you now hold?

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Burris: Tavis, there’s no such thing as a stain on a Senate seat. The law says that the governor shall appoint. There is no stain on the appointment. The appointment was done the same way in New York, same way in Colorado, the same way in Delaware. The governor appointed. There’s no such thing as a stain.

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Tavis: I accept that. To the point. Roland Burris, the new senator, the junior senator now from the great state of Illinois and the Land of Lincoln. Of course, he holds the seat that Barack Obama once held. Mr. Burris, Senator Burris, an honor to have you on the program. I look forward to talking to you a few times, I’m sure, over the next couple of years, and it may be longer than that.

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Burris: Please invite me back, Tavis, I enjoy it. Appreciate your questions, friend. Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm