In his farewell Senate speech, Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) on Thursday deplored the fact that he is the only African-American in the Senate, and when he leaves on Nov. 29 there will be none.
That's the day Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, who won the Nov. 2 election, is sworn in to fill the remainder of President Obama's original term.
For Burris, serving in the Senate was the "opportunity of a lifetime," he said from the Senate floor, making no mention that he arrived cloaked in controversy because he was appointed by a governor accused of trying to sell Obama's old seat.
"When the 112th Congress is sworn in this coming January, there will not be a single black American who takes the oath of office in this chamber," Burris said to a nearly empty Senate. "This is simply unacceptable. We can, and we will, and we must do better.
"In this regard, and in any other, our political progress has proven less accessible -- and less representative -- than it ought to be, and although I have never allowed my race to define me, in a sense, it has meant that my constituency as a United States senator has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Illinois," he said
There have only been six African-American senators, three of them Chicago Democrats: former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, now running for Chicago mayor, Obama, and Burris, who was a political has-been when he accepted the tainted appointment from Rod Blagojevich after the former governor was arrested on Dec. 9, 2010 on a variety of public corruption charges. Blagojevich earlier this year was convicted of just one charge -- lying to federal agents -- and next year faces a retrial on 23 other criminal counts.
Burris, 73, was sworn in on Jan. 15, 2009, fulfilling a longtime ambition to one day be a vice president or a senator, he said from the Senate floor, presenting a sanitized version of events that led him to the chamber.
His dream took longer to achieve than he thought. "But in a towering testament to the American Dream, that day came," he said.
During his farewell address, only four senators were on the floor, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was not one of them.
Burris and Durbin have had a chilly relationship, stemming from the circumstances over Burris taking the appointment from Blagojevich. The Senate vowed never to seat a Blagojevich appointee, but relented for a variety of reasons, including that Burris would be replacing Obama, who was the only African-American in the Senate when he served.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Durbin struck a deal with Burris: if he testified truthfully before the Illinois General Assembly's Blagojevich impeachment committee about the circumstances of his appointment, the Senate would seat him.
It turned out that Burris' testimony was less than candid, and the Senate Ethics Committee admonished him for providing "incorrect, inconsistent, misleading or incomplete information" to the impeachment panel and that his actions "reflected unfavorably on the Senate."
Burris survived the ethics inquiry. I interviewed Burris recently and he told me he had a "great time" as senator. "It is a great group." He said Reid eventually apologized to him, and "that's why you saw me being treated as any other senator."
Always ambitious, Burris, a former Illinois attorney general and comptroller, finally realized that he had no path to running in 2010 to keep the seat. At first he thought he would have the automatic support of Illinois Democrats because he was the incumbent, but that was never to be. Durbin and the Obama White House tried to recruit a strong contender for the spot, though that also never came to be -- Kirk beat Democratic Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias, the state treasurer.
Settling into the Senate, Burris carved out a career noteworthy for speaking out on minority issues and for the number of hours he presided over the Senate -- a time-consuming job in which he gladly took over the shifts of other senators with something else to do. In his farewell address, Burris noted that he earned two golden gavels -- souvenirs for presiding more than 200 hours.
"People thought I was being shunned and I was being ignored, and I was having a great time trying to know more and learn the Senate," Burris told me in our interview. A consistent Democratic progressive, Burris said one of his proudest achievements was pushing for a public option in the health care bill, though the Obama White House walked away from what was going to be a losing battle.
Burris traveled extensively on taxpayer-funded official congressional delegations during his 22 months in the Senate. In 2009, he visited London between Sept. 1 and 6 and Iraq, to meet with Illinois National Guard members, Nov. 19-25. In 2010, Burris was in China Jan.12 -14 and in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti April 4-10. An August trip to Taiwan was paid for by the Taiwan government.
A member of the Home Security and Governmental Affairs and Armed Services Committees, Burris also visited the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, Fort Hood and military installations in Colorado and Nebraska.
Burris leaves the Senate with $630,000 in legal bills stemming from his seating and ethics battles and owes $130,000 to his political action committee. He told me he may seek employment as a lawyer, a lobbyist or on a corporate board.