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Shooting Against the Clock

Former U.S. Attorney Jim Burns plays catch-up in the gubernatorial primary.

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By Ted Klein

There was a moment on January 17 when Jim Burns was the most popular Democrat running for governor of Illinois. Burns, the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, was asked to spell out his stand on abortion at a candidate forum at Spertus Institute. His answer thrilled the crowd of left-wing activists at the debate.

"My wife and I have two daughters," Burns began, tilting his basketball player's frame toward the microphone. "I've discussed the abortion issue with my wife and my daughters. It was very important for old dad to listen to what they had to say." He paused, then punched the next phrase. "I strongly support a woman's right to choose. Politicians, and particularly male politicians, should stay out of that."

The crowd exploded, clapping and whooping. None of Burns's three rivals for the Democratic nomination--Roland Burris, Glenn Poshard, or John Schmidt--got a louder response that afternoon. In public Burns sometimes projects a don't-make-me-repeat-myself sternness, a trait that served him better as a prosecutor than it does as a politician, but this day he sounded passionate, especially on guns, abortion, and political corruption. He was even relaxed enough to try a joke: when Burris accused Burns of copying his education funding plan, Burns said, "Roland, I'm not copying anything. I'm not going to pull a Joe Biden on you." After a moment of silence, Burns announced, "That was meant to be humorous."

In his closing statement, Burns ended with the words, "Remember: George Ryan." Like Burris, Poshard, and Schmidt, Burns is presenting himself as the only Democrat who can beat Ryan in November. But first he has to win the Democratic primary, and right now he's running dead last.

As a gubernatorial candidate Burns had potential. Back in October, when he entered the race, Steve Neal of the Sun-Times called him "the hottest property in Illinois Democratic politics" and "the Democrat with the best hope of ending a generation of GOP rule in Springfield." Neal uses his political column to flack for house speaker Michael Madigan, so this was a big endorsement.

But Burns's moment as the Democrats' Mr. November was brief. Just before Christmas, Scott Lassar, Burns's handpicked assistant in the U.S. attorney's office, let 12th Ward alderman Ray Frias wriggle off the hook in his Operation Silver Shovel trial. Frias claimed that the office had tried to trick an honest politician into taking a bribe and then put him on trial so Burns could impress suburban voters with the hide of a Latino alderman. Burns then went to Tahiti for a long-planned family vacation, and when he returned, his former godfather Madigan was helping Poshard win the AFL-CIO endorsement for governor. Gary LaPaille, chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, declared this "a bad omen for the Burns campaign" and suggested that Burns "reassess" his dream of governing Illinois.

But Burns isn't reassessing anything; he says "the hardworking people who play by the rules every day" want a governor who will "restore faith and confidence in government." As U.S. attorney, Burns prosecuted bribe-taking legislators and aldermen and uncovered ghost payrollers in City Hall. He promises to end vice and graft in the state capital, too, and if he's serious he'll have his hands full: Illinois has one of the most corrupt political cultures in the English-speaking world. Drag a dollar through Springfield and there's no telling what'll stick to it; in the last 30 years we've seen two governors go to prison and a secretary of state turn up dead in his hotel room, alone except for $800,000 in cash stuffed in shoe boxes. Even Governor Edgar, who doesn't have enough imagination to be a crook, has been embarrassed by the MSI scandal: Management Services of Illinois saw its state contracts jump from $409,000 to $11.2 million after bribing bureaucrats in the Department of Public Aid. "There is a certain history here, not only in Chicago but in state government as well," Burns says. "I think we want to look at some time-honored practices."

Burns started off his campaign by announcing a plan to clean up Springfield; it would prohibit state legislators from holding other government jobs--double-dipping--and limit gifts from lobbyists to $25 a year. All state contracts over $10,000 would be subject to bidding, and all bidders would have to make public a list of their political contributions. No one in a Burns administration would be allowed to hold any sort of second job or take a loan from a company doing business with the state. Burns says he believes in law and order, not the kind George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Richard J. Daley used to holler about, but the kind Jimmy Carter talked about in 1976: law-and-order liberalism. Burns is pro-choice, he supports more day-care centers for single mothers moving from welfare to work, and he favors requiring companies with state contracts to pay a living wage of $7.60 an hour. But he doesn't think he can accomplish any of this unless voters trust his administration.

"People are cynical about their leaders," he said at the candidate forum. "They want strong, independent leadership that can dissuade them of this notion that--it's almost like lawyer jokes--All politicians, oh, they're a bunch of crooks, or they're a bunch of scoundrels. We cannot have that kind of public attitude, because the things we need to get done to fight crime and make our streets safer and get rid of the scourge of drugs and the attendant violence, the things that we need to do in terms of our infrastructure and many, many other issues that must be done and done quickly, it will be so much easier to do it if you have a public that has some faith in their government and in their leaders and believe, even if they disagree with you--much as they used to disagree with Paul Simon--if they believe you're doing the right thing and doing it based on principle."

Burns thinks the reform issue will serve him well against Ryan, who has spent most of his career in elective office and whose rotundity and shiny suits make him look like a character from All the King's Men. "I know he's been around a long time, and he's made a lot of friends, but I think he's going to be viewed by the voters as more of the same, the status quo," Burns says. "I think I match up very well on that issue--who is more likely to restore faith in government and reform government. On certain women's issues, I match up very well: choice and the fact that he so aggressively worked against the ERA. [Ryan was speaker of the General Assembly that rejected the Equal Rights Amendment.] I think there are going to be women and women's groups that aren't going to forget that. He also can't do to me what he can to some of my other opponents on the tax issue, because they've been supporting an increase in the state income tax to support education, and I've said that it's not necessary. We've got a large budget surplus. We've got excellent revenue growth and revenue-growth projections into the future." Burns's education funding plan would devote half of all increased revenue to education annually, which he says would provide an extra $1.2 billion over the next four years.

Burns presents himself as not only the most honest candidate but the one most able to bridge the divide between Chicago and downstate. Wherever you live in Illinois, Burns has lived there too. He was born in Quincy, in the hump of western Illinois, and grew up in McLeansboro, a village of 3,000 people in Little Egypt. Burns was a superstar down there--his dad was a lawyer, his brother a Dartmouth grad, and besides being the school's best basketball player he was a two-way starter in football, an all-southern Illinois first baseman in baseball, and broke several school records in track. Looking for a school where he could be a serious student as well as an athlete, he accepted a basketball scholarship to Northwestern in 1963.

During his three years on the varsity there, Burns scored 1,368 points, a school record that stood for a decade. In the spring of 1967 the Bulls, then an expansion team preparing for its second season, chose Burns in the NBA draft. He made the team--and lasted nine games. Three weeks into the season he had scored just four points in 11 minutes of playing time, and the Bulls placed him on waivers. He signed on with the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA, but after injuring his Achilles tendon he decided to give up his $12,000-a-year basketball career and enter law school; in those days rookie prosecutors made as much money as rookie basketball players. After graduating he joined the U.S. attorney's office, and he's worked in the Chicago area ever since. (He's currently on leave from the law firm of Sidley and Austin, which he joined after resigning as U.S. attorney last August.)

Burns hasn't lost his downstate drawl, but everything else about him is big city now--he wears expensive-looking suits, he used to take the Metra downtown from his home in Evanston, and he says liberal stuff like, "There's absolutely no reason for anyone to own an assault weapon." In a place like McLeansboro, talk like that will win you as many votes as an endorsement from the Socialist Workers Party.

Behind a microphone Burns often seems stuffy, but acquaintances say he's funny and relaxed in private. He follows football and basketball--especially Northwestern--and he reads history and political science. "He's a wicked wit, and very good company," says author Scott Turow, who met Burns in the 70s, when Burns was chief of the criminal division at the U.S. attorney's office. "He's very quick and very playful, sort of the way men in competitive situations play the dozens on each other."

When I interview him at his Michigan Avenue campaign office, Burns loosens up only when the subject turns to basketball. "When you go downstate and get together with local Democrats," he explains, "the first 15 or 20 minutes you spend talking about basketball, and then you get to politics. You keep your priorities straight." He admits that he sometimes wonders what would have happened if he'd hung on as a pro basketball player. "There were years down the road, I will tell you, after the ABA merged [with the NBA], TV started buying in big time and I started seeing what some of those players were making. I started to wonder, maybe I should have tried to hang on, even if I could just hang on at the end of the bench for ten years, 'cause some of these guys sitting at the end of the bench were making pretty damn good money. I may never have gone to law school. But then again, if you hang on long enough, you might be interested in being a commentator or some way being involved in sports announcing. Some of these guys have jobs that look like a lot of fun. Johnny Kerr. That'd be a fun job, wouldn't it? I'm certainly a better lawyer than I was a pro basketball player, though."

From Thomas Dewey to Jim Thompson and Rudolph Giuliani, federal prosecutors have used their conviction records as resumes for higher office. Three of Burns's predecessors as U.S. attorney--Thompson, Otto Kerner, and Dwight H. Green--went on to become governor. Another, Samuel Skinner, joined the Bush administration as secretary of transportation. But to make a name for yourself you need a big investigation. Thompson convicted former governor Kerner of taking a bribe from a racetrack owner and sent to prison three members of Daley's inner circle; Burns has Operation Silver Shovel, in which the FBI sent a hood named John Christopher to bribe public officials for help in getting permits for rock-crushing or waste-hauling operations. So far ten people, including former aldermen Jesse Evans, Allan Streeter, and Ambrosio Medrano, have been convicted or pleaded guilty. That's a lot of scalps, but the fact that most of them are brown and used to belong to Democrats has turned a lot of Chicago politicians against Burns. On the south side especially, Burns is being accused of luring minority officeholders into committing crimes to bulk up his record as a prosecutor.

"I'm outspoken about any concerted effort of our government to create crime," says Ninth Ward alderman Robert Shaw, who has not been a target of Silver Shovel. "It's irritating and it's offensive and it's racist. There's also kinds of things going on in Du Page County that Jim Burns could have found out about. Why didn't he? Is it because the people involved were of a different color?"

That's what Ray Frias believes. Frias, recently acquitted of bribery for accepting $500 from Christopher, is so bitter about Silver Shovel that he vows to campaign for George Ryan if Burns wins the Democratic primary. The investigation and trial, he says, "destroyed" his mother, made it impossible for him to introduce legislation in the City Council, and lost his brother Fernando a race for the state legislature. Frias claims he was a naive state legislator when he took the $500, presented to him as a "consulting fee." Christopher returned 17 times to offer more money, but Frias turned him away every time. "There had to be a reason [Burns] went after me. I'm an alderman. He was after a headline."

Frias is not just an alderman, he's a minority alderman, as were Evans, Streeter, and Medrano. Burns loves to convict minorities, Frias says, because he doesn't think he needs them to get elected and because it looks good to the downstaters and suburbanites who would cast the deciding votes in a race against George Ryan. "Out in suburbia, alderman's a bad word," Frias says sardonically. "And then a minority. That has to be bad."

Burns responds that minority communities have supported his efforts to prosecute their corrupt representatives. "The feedback I get when I'm out in the community and when I talk to community leaders is that we did an outstanding job," he says. "Listen, we should have zero tolerance on public corruption. If somebody is a public official and they get caught in corruption and the evidence is there to prove it, they should be charged. It doesn't make any difference what their party affiliation is. And that's what I hear. If somebody is corrupt, indict him."

Scott Lassar, who is now acting U.S. attorney, thinks Burns actually took a considerable risk by going after so many Democrats: "First of all, Silver Shovel had been going on for a year before we got here," Lassar points out. "I don't think he thought it was good for his career to indict a lot of Democratic aldermen." Lassar is probably right: Burns has little support from Democratic commiteemen in Chicago, and he reportedly won't even show his face in south-side political circles.

But other critics wonder why Burns, who had 175 attorneys on his staff, couldn't find anything on a powerful white politician like former 11th Ward alderman Patrick Huels. Huels was forced out of office after two Sun-Times reporters revealed that he had accepted a $1.25 million loan from a trucking company that did business with the city. "There may be people engaged in conduct that doesn't pass the smell test," Burns explains, "but conduct that doesn't pass the smell test isn't always a federal crime, and unless you've got a federal crime or crimes, you don't charge people."

Burns insists that he never let his political future influence his decisions while U.S. attorney: "While I was in the U.S. attorney's office, I did nothing political. I think not only was that the proper way to go, it certainly avoided any appearance of impropriety on any decisions made while you were U.S. attorney that had anything to do with anything other than the merits of each case." Of course, U.S. attorney is a political office; Burns was appointed by President Clinton, and one of his goals was to advance Clinton's criminal-justice agenda. Clinton wanted to attack street crime, so Burns busted Larry Hoover (who was already in prison) and 38 other Gangster Disciples. Furthermore, Burns had been a politician before he became U.S. attorney. In 1990 he ran for lieutenant governor with Neil Hartigan, and according to the Tribune he would have run for attorney general or secretary of state in 1994 if he hadn't gotten the prosecutor's job. In the Northern District of Illinois, U.S. attorneys traditionally seek only a single four-year term; Burns seems to be suggesting that while he held the job, he forgot his political ambitions entirely.

According to Lassar it's "a common thing" for targets of the U.S. attorney's office to suggest a political motive. State senator Bruce Farley, indicted by Burns for accepting $172,000 in wages and benefits in an alleged ghost-payrolling scheme at the Cook County treasurer's office, has also accused Burns of playing politics. "People always say that, no matter who the U.S. attorney is," says Lassar. "'They're out to get me.'"

But when the guy who indicted them sets his sights on the governor's mansion, it sounds a little bit more believable.

One on one, Jim Burns could beat anyone in the Democratic field. He's more liberal than Glenn Poshard, he has more leadership experience than John Schmidt, and he's white, which Roland Burris isn't. But in a four-way election, you win by mobilizing special interests. Poshard has the blue-collar and the downstate vote, Schmidt has the liberal and the suburban vote, and Burris has the black vote. Burns, the last candidate to enter the race, got in too late to court many of the political action groups that might have endorsed him; the Fraternal Order of Police went for Poshard, and the National Organization for Women chose Schmidt. But he doesn't need them, he sniffs. He'll have the "hardworking people who play by the rules" on his side. "Frankly, we're not running on group endorsements or on insider politics or anything of that nature."

The hardworking people, though, have been working too hard to learn anything about Jim Burns, and despite a campaign treasury of $660,000, he only began running TV ads about two weeks ago. (His first ad had him shooting baskets and saying, "Give me a shot as governor.") A January poll in the Tribune showed Burns with 11 percent of the voters; the report also stated that Burns "was rated a good second choice for governor, just behind Burris." So Burns is the public's second choice as a second choice. Hey, since the last generation of reformers cleaned up Illinois, we only get one vote apiece. Unless Burns can convince a lot more Democrats to use it on him, the party's going to place him on waivers, just as the Bulls did in 1967. This time, though, he won't have another league to play in.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jim Burns photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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