Roland Burris gambled that he could accept a U.S. Senate appointment from a political pariah and still be seen as an honest, hardworking public servant. He lost.
Burris was permanently tainted when he happily took the offer from Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich just three weeks after Blagojevich was arrested for trying to sell a Senate seat to the highest bidder. He fought waves of criticism, opposition from fellow Democrats, court battles and even a perjury investigation.
Weakened and facing multiple primary challengers next spring, Burris has decided to not to fight for a full Senate term.
He told party leaders Thursday of his decision not to run in 2010, a Democratic official said. An official announcement was scheduled for Friday in Chicago.
A Burris friend said the 71-year-old had concluded he could not change public perception without spending huge amounts of money. Burris raised only $845 during the first three months of 2009.
"He knows he didn't do anything wrong. On the other hand, he knows it's such a tough tide to turn," said the friend, who along with the Democratic official spoke on condition of anonymity because Burris hadn't yet announced his decision.
The decision to stay out of the race could help Democrats hold on to the seat by preventing an ugly primary battle focused on the Blagojevich scandal.
Burris, the nation's only black senator, denies doing anything improper to get his appointment to the Senate seat formerly held by President Barack Obama. Yet he has repeatedly given vague and conflicting accounts.
He said he had talked to only one Blagojevich associate about the Senate post before it was offered, but later acknowledged other conversations. He denied any discussions of campaign donations, but it turned out federal investigators had recorded him talking to Blagojevich's brother about the possibility of raising money for the governor.
Burris told Robert Blagojevich he had looked into the issue but couldn't find anyone willing to donate to the disgraced governor. Still, Burris promised to make a donation himself — something that didn't happen before Blagojevich's arrest.
The Sangamon County state's attorney looked into whether Burris should be charged with perjury for his incomplete testimony to an Illinois House committee that questioned him. The prosecutor concluded it would be impossible to prove Burris' answers were intentional lies.
When Burris first went to Washington to be sworn in, he was turned away from the Capitol in the rain. Reluctant Democratic leaders eventually seated him, but he's faced a lot of cold shoulders. Democrats and Republicans alike refuse to partner with him on legislation.
Polls have found little support for Burris among Illinois voters. Just 34 percent had a favorable opinion of him in one Chicago Tribune survey.
Burris fought hard during the past six months to position himself to run for a full term. Spokeswoman Delmarie Cobb often rebutted news stories she considered negative and harshly criticized Democrats who didn't support Burris.
She sometimes presented the issue in terms of race, arguing Democrats were taking black votes for granted or that newspaper editorials had different standards for Burris than for white politicians. She accused some Democrats of trying to "lynch" Burris and make him a "whipping boy."
Serving in the Senate was supposed to cap an impressive political career.
Burris grew up in southern Illinois at a time when blacks weren't allowed to use the community swimming pool. He went on to become the first black man to hold a major statewide office in Illinois, serving three terms as state comptroller and two as attorney general.
His last election victory was in 1990, however. Since then, he has lost four races: three tries at the Democratic nomination for governor and one for Chicago mayor. Blagojevich's appointment offered a return to politics at the highest levels.
Reputation clearly matters deeply to Burris. A mausoleum commissioned for himself and his wife has the words "TRAIL BLAZER" carved on it, along with all his accomplishments and titles.
Burris apparently intends to serve out the rest of his appointment, which ends in January 2011.
His decision not to run is the second major development in the 2010 Illinois Senate race in as many days. On Wednesday, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan — a top recruit who was wooed by the White House — announced she would not run for Senate and instead would seek re-election.
First-term Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias plans to seek the Democratic nomination. Christopher Kennedy, a Chicago businessman and son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, and Chicago Urban League president Cheryle Jackson are considering wading in, too.
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