When Illinois Sen. Roland Burris took office almost a year ago, he already appeared to be a lame-duck politician.
After being appointed by the shady Gov. Rod Blagojevich in late December, Burris found himself shrouded in a haze of suspicion and controversy. With such a troubled introduction to national politics, it seemed as if “Blago’s boy” was little more than a political eunuch.
But the hard-knuckle Chicago politician seized his moment a few weeks ago when he proclaimed that he wouldn’t sign a health care bill that didn’t include a public option. With that, he not only propelled himself into prime time, landing spots on C-SPAN, MSNBC and Fox, but he also made himself relevant.
The landmark bill that passed the House on Saturday likely included a government-sponsored plan because of Burris. It now has to pass the Senate, which will be a challenge for the Democrats, who have no room for error in their quest for a 60-vote majority.
But if they can pull it off, Burris could emerge as the savior of the public option.
Less than a year ago, he was facing perjury charges in Illinois and an ethics investigation by his peers on Capitol Hill. Calls for his resignation were swift and came from Dick Durbin, his colleague from Illinois, and the president.
Burris, a longtime elected official who served as Illinois attorney general and comptroller, was quickly losing face and something far more critical: his political capital. In July, he announced that he wouldn’t run in the 2010 election.
Then, like manna sent from heaven, nearly every member of the Republican Party pledged to vote against health care reform, a central part of Obama’s domestic agenda. And Burris discovered that he did, indeed, possess political might.
The Democrats had all but backed off of the idea of a public option after members of the GOP and insurance industry lobbyists waged a full-on campaign of scare tactics and misinformation to neuter it.
They spent the summer trying to woo Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and moderate Republicans in the Senate to gain support for a bill they knew would more than likely pass the House.
So they were wholly unprepared when one of their own threatened to break ranks. For his part, Burris held firm to the need for a public option. “It’s time to do it for the benefit of those who are uninsured,” he reportedly said. And when he went public with his ultimatum, his party was forced to do an about-face.
The Dems had taken Burris’ vote for granted and, as a result, they were facing the very real possibility that he would be a crucial holdout.
The president, who had earlier in the year remarked publicly about his lack of confidence in Burris, dispatched Health Czar Nancy-Ann DeParle to chat with the junior senator. But since announcing plans to only serve one term, Burris was no longer beholden to political alliances, which meant he had nothing to lose.
Whether his subtle threat was political posturing or, as he claimed, simply a matter of pushing for an aspect of health care reform important to his constituents, Burris proved that he could navigate the political landscape and be an effective lawmaker.
His is a story that reveals the tenuous nature of politics and the power of one vote.
Once marginalized, Burris staged a political ascension impressive even by Washington standards. Better still, he carried it out while the nation watched.
Chana O. Garcia is a New York writer. She writes about health issues on the blog Cancer Slayer.
Chana Garcia is a journalist, blogger, and cancer survivor who lives in New York City.