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A new title for Burris: Professor

John Kass

January 10, 2013

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Ever want to learn how to become a politician? Then you can still sign up for the famed "Burris School of Politics."

The course is taught by the Illinois political laughingstock and former U.S. Sen. Roland "Tombstone" Burris, whose ego is so huge that on his tombstone he's already carved many of his political titles. And he's not even dead.

And now he can add another honorific: esteemed professor.

Tuition is only 50 bucks, and for that you get a name tag and three class sessions in which Burris shares his deep political secrets, like "What are the three branches of government?" and "How many counties are there in Illinois?" (Answers: Executive, legislative and judicial. And 102).

"So much stuff comes at you from different angles," Burris told the class this week. "That's one reason why I decided I was going to do my best to impart information to create the Burris School of Politics."

But Tombstone didn't tell the class all the good, juicy stuff. Like how he misled a legislative committee about his dealings with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, from whose craven hand Burris accepted the appointment to fill the vacant Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama.

Sadly, I couldn't attend. If I'd shown up ready for school, Tombstone would have gone into hysterics about how I don't respect him. So my colleague Old School saved the day by going in my stead. He paid his money and filled out the questionnaire and wrote that he worked at the Chicago Tribune. Apparently, Burris failed the first test of politics, which is to pay attention, because he didn't read the questionnaire.

"The students seemed involved," Old School said. "He would ask a question, and pause to see if someone would answer, as would a teacher. What does a ward committeeman do? How many townships are there in Illinois? One of the first questions he asked was: Does Cook County have a sheriff? And someone said, 'No.' And the class corrected him."

Tombstone said that if the students wanted to understand what was going on in Illinois, they had to pay attention to Springfield and the Democratic boss, House Speaker Michael Madigan, and his underboss, Senate President John Cullerton.

"Michael Madigan and Cullerton," Burris said repeatedly. "Michael Madigan and Cullerton."

Old School was excited on his first day of school but soon became sad at how low-tech it was, with no PowerPoint presentations or overhead projectors. The glitziest thing was Tombstone in a crisp blue suit.

What really bothered Old School — besides Burris not teaching how to make deals with guys like Blagojevich — was a glaring lack of snacks.

"No snacks at all," complained Old School. "And no cocktails, nothing."

No cocktails? And none of those little cocktail weenies wrapped in tiny buns? What kind of political school is this?

"I would have settled for Lunchables and a Capri Sun, but there was nothing," he said. "I've had better refreshments covering murder sentencings."

The Burris School of Politics is being held at the West Chesterfield Community Association, 9351 S. Michigan Ave. There were about 20 or so students in attendance for the first session Tuesday, so Tombstone collected $1,000.

Rent for the tiny bungalow is $60 per event, according to the community association's Facebook page. I hope Sen. Tombstone reports any profits to the IRS.

When we asked Michael LaFargue, president of the West Chesterfield Community Association, about the financial arrangements, he said, "I'm not even going to comment on that at all."

Last February, Tombstone told WBEZ he hoped to charge $300 per person, but he ended up collecting a paltry $50 a head. And worth every nickel.

On Tuesday, the students sat on folding chairs and listened to Burris expound on everything from the Founding Fathers to his battle on behalf of Obamacare, although no one in Washington remembers Burris doing much of anything.

"I was there, I was there," Old School said Burris kept repeating. "I was there."

Of course you were there, Tombstone. The problem was in how you got there.

Sadly, during his lecture Tombstone said nothing about the amazing award he received from Washingtonian magazine, when he was named most clueless member of Congress.

While Tombstone offered no refreshments, there was a special treat. "A textbook," said Old School.

Yes, Tombstone passed out copies of the 2011-2012 Illinois Handbook of Government. But he didn't need to pay for it. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White gives it out at his offices around the state and to schools for free.

At the end of the evening, students gathered around Burris to chat him up. Old School was subtle — as befits someone who has already been to the Kass School of Politics — and so was the last in line.

"I shook his hand and then introduced myself as a reporter for the Tribune," said Old School. "His handshake lost some of its pump. Then he gave me one of those 1,000-yard stares."

The handshake got even fishier after Old School told Tombstone he works with me.

"That's even worse," Tombstone said, then added: "Did you pay for the class?"

Yes, sir, Senator! We're not politicians. We don't take stuff for free. Not even textbooks.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass