Burris Grills Hearing on Funds for Minority Businesses
By Alec MacGillis
What's Roland Burris up to these days? He's fallen off the radar screen since the drama of Rod Blagojevich selecting him to fill Barack Obama's seat. He says he hasn't decided yet if he is going to run for reelection in 2010, but the Chicago Tribune last week quoted a strategist saying Burris was embarking on a "very aggressive" fund-raising regimen. And judging from a hearing today of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee about stimulus spending, it is clear that Burris is doing all he can to tend to what he perceives as his political base: African American voters in Illinois. At the same time, though, Burris' performance at the hearing raised questions about whether he fully grasped the nature of the needs and services affecting that very population.
Burris spent a long chunk of time grilling the witnesses with questions that focused on one and only one thing: whether stimulus money was getting to African American communities in Illinois. He said that he had been peppered with questions during his recent break in Illinois from African American constituents demanding to know why more of the stimulus money wasn't coming their way.
"Small businesses are saying, 'Where's the money and who's getting it?'" he said. "How is the stimulus money going to impact the black community in Chicago, in Peoria, in Rockford?"
One of the witnesses, Government Accountability Office Comptroller Gene Dodaro, tried to explain that there were a host of requirements in the $787 billion package to assure that money went to where it was needed most, including rules about prioritizing minority contractors and about targeting infrastructure funds to poor areas. This did not satisfy Burris, who wanted to know what enforcement there was to make sure that money actually got to minorities. "What is the punishment if they don't?" Burris asked. At the end of the hearing, he demanded more time and circled back to press the point. "How can these businesses get a piece of this action?" he said. "It's all at the top -- there's no ability for these businesses to share in our tax dollars."
Burris' emphasis on minority voters provided a contrast with his predecessor, Obama, who as senator and presidential candidate took pride in promoting a new kind of post-racial politics -- he was the Senate's only African American, but he spoke often of representing all of Illinois and liked to gloat about the inroads he'd made in mostly white and rural downstate Illinois.
Burris spokesman Jim O'Connor said the senator was so persistent about money getting to minority Illinoisans because of what he was hearing from his constituents. "Those are the concerns he hears every time he goes back to the state. These are the people he represents," O'Connor said. "He feels responsibility for representing Illlinois and to the extent that the minority community represents a large proportion of Illinois, for representing them."
Burris' frustration was centered partly around a basic misunderstanding about how a big piece of the stimulus package function, the $337 million that have already gone out to the country's community health clinics. Burris said he'd heard that 36 community health clinics in Illinois had received funding, and he demanded to know whether those clinics were in underserved communities and if not, why. None of the witnesses provided the answer that might have satisfied him: those 36 clinics are in fact all of the community health clinics in Illinois and they, like community health clinics around the country, are nearly all located in poor communities -- the whole point of the clinics is to serve low-income patients in inner cities or rural areas. Virtually every one of the 1100 community health clinics in the country got some of the money. No one -- black, white or otherwise -- was left out.
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April 23, 2009; 5:36 PM ET
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