“Former Burris aide questioned in probe” ran a headline in Tuesday’s Sun-Times. The story beneath it quoted John Ruff saying that he’d spoken with investigators looking into the possibility that Burris--U.S. Senator Roland Burris--had committed perjury in his January testimony to state lawmakers. Ruff was essentially alleging that he had.
Early Tuesday afternoon, Burris’s political and media adviser Delmarie Cobb sent an e-mail to reporters that challenged just about every major point in the story, starting with its description of the relationship between Ruff and the senator: “Ruff was never an aide to Burris,” the statement declared, then said Ruff had once worked for a company that Burris did consulting for. “Whatever he claims to know about Burris’ appointment is hearsay, because he claims no direct discussions with him.”
The two-and-a-half-page statement went on to say: “The ‘evolving story’ is being created primarily by the Sun-Times, which continues to treat Sen. Burris’ Illinois General Assembly Special Investigative Committee testimony, affidavits and off-the-cuff recollections without regard for context, timing, purpose, or weight related to the process around his appointment. Regrettably, the newspaper is now resorting to hearsay, conjecture, unrelated or unsubstantiated information much closer to fiction than journalism.”
Other than that, it was a great story.
Burris has been keeping a fairly low profile lately, aside from his spirited appearance in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade (where, according to some press reports, he inspired murmurs and jokes; Cobb sent around pictures of him shaking hands with kids).
Cobb, on the other hand, has not.
Burris hired the longtime political consultant a month ago. From his perspective, it was a must—he had to get some help in crafting a coherent message explaining that he isn't a snake. Less clear to some of us was why Cobb agreed to be the one to provide it.
She says it’s quite simple: she believes in the guy and can't stand watching him getting a raw deal.
“I’ve seen some of the comments written about me—like I must be in it for a paycheck,” she told me in an interview. “For me it’s always been about the people and not the money. I don’t do these things if I don’t believe in them.
“With Roland, I’ve done two of his gubernatorial campaigns. During campaigns, when you’re out traveling and going to events, usually people who do what I do spend the most time with the candidate. You really get a sense of who this person is.” And Burris, she said, is an honest, hardworking public servant.
I will come right out and say that I like Cobb and respect that she doesn’t just stick with winners—she’s always been a Daley critic, and she was waving the Hillary Clinton banner and tussling with Obama supporters long after that cause was lost. But she’s also a professional campaigner who knows how to write and stick to a script even as most in the audience are struggling to suspend their disbelief.
As Burris and his attorney have argued before, Cobb said he answered everything he was asked by the legislative panel; it was afterward that he realized he should disclose other information just to clarify matters.
“He has never done anything wrong—his crime has been to be too transparent,” Cobb said. “He offered information that no one had asked for. He just thought, ‘I will show I’ve done nothing wrong and everyone will see that.’ To Roland, I think [the outrage] was a surprise, because he has been out here before the public for 30 years. He was like a deer in the headlights—it was the last thing he expected.”
She continued: “He can be blamed for a lot of things—he can be blamed for taking the appointment after all the Democrats said not to take it. But it should not be guilt by association, just because Blagojevich is tainted—though we don’t even know how credible that is, given how long it’s taken to file more charges against him.”
The standard for a U.S. Senator is generally thought to be a bit higher than not breaking the law. Yet Cobb also maintains that Burris was picked to replace Barack Obama for exactly that reason. She said Rod Blagojevich wasn't just acting on some self-serving political calculation, as most of us have assumed—he was actually making a last-ditch attempt at regaining the public trust. “Blagojevich was thinking, ‘This is my last act—how can I go out with credibility?’ He could have picked anybody if he wanted to make a spectacle, but he didn’t. He picked Danny Davis and Roland Burris.”
So let’s ask this again: When he had all those discussions with Blago aides, and when he donated to--and tried to fundraise for--the former governor, Burris wasn’t trying to barter his way into the Senate seat? “He wrote a check for $1,000 to Blagojevich in June 2008,” Cobb said. “You know he couldn’t buy a senate seat for $1,000.”
She says she’s been forced to fire off rebuttals to news stories—she's circulated at least three in the last week—because the context is too often missing and the facts plain wrong. She pointed to a February 20 AP story reporting that some unnamed African-American clergy were going to call on Burris to quit. “There is no such animal in Chicago as an unnamed black minister," she said. "If they’re going to talk to reporters, they’re going to call a news conference and you’re going to know about it.”
In short, Cobb says Burris has been accused of being a liar when he's actually painfully honest, and there is widespread support for him in the black community, even if some white politicians are speaking out against him to make themselves look better.
Then there are the accusations—seemingly backed by anecdotal and photographic evidence—that Burris is a bit egocentric. Cobb says that's been blown way out of proportion too: “After 30 years, there are only three things anyone could find that are bad about him: his mausoleum, he named his kids after himself, and he refers to himself in the third person,” Cobb said.
She repeated the explanation about the mausoleum that Burris offered to the New Yorker recently: a cemetery manager told him to ditch a modest headstone in favor of a monument so that others could find inspiration in all he’s achieved. “He is obsessed with being a role model and with his legacy,” Cobb said.
Second, she said, Burris can’t take credit for naming his kids Rolanda and Roland II: “His wife named the children.”
And referring to himself in the third person is actually a sign of modesty, according to Cobb. “I think it’s a generational thing,” she said. “There was a time you didn’t really talk about yourself. Now, of course, the first thing out of some people’s mouths is ‘I.’ But that’s not the way it was for him.”
Burris's Senate seat is up for election next year, starting with primaries in February. Cobb refused to say whether he was planning to run. "He's taking one step at a time, and the first step is rehabilitating his reputation."
In the meantime, she said, he's focused on being a legislator. Last week he delivered a speech about gun violence on the Senate floor, and he's working to try to revive plans to bring a "clean coal" power plant to Illinois. "We now have a senator who really wants to be there and do his job," she said.
Unlike, say, the last guy to keep the seat warm.