BOSTON – To paraphrase Mark Twain, Bill Burlison’s political death has been grossly exaggerated.
Twenty-four years ago, Burlison, a congressman running for a seventh term in his rural southeast Missouri district, lost his re-election bid after police were called to a woman’s home to break up a shoving match between Burlison and her estranged husband. Burlison’s political career seemed over.
But today the 73-year-old is enjoying a political rebirth half-way across the country as a second-term Anne Arundel County Council member and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
Outfitted in a loud and dated striped wool sports coat, a donkey-print tie, but without the pins and slogans adorning the lapels of many other delegates, Burlison spoke deliberately and with more than a hint of his “Missourah” accent.
“Losing is always unpleasant,” said Burlison, relaxing in a chair on the floor of a mostly empty Fleet Center before Tuesday’s main convention events. “But defeat means only that you’ve got to work a little harder the next time. That’s sort of the story of my life.”
Burlison settled permanently in Maryland soon after his 1980 loss, lobbying and running for political office ever since.
But for nearly 20 years, his bids for offices not nearly as prestigious as the U.S. Congress were unsuccessful.
He lost races for the Prince George’s County Council, the Maryland House of Delegates and even earlier bids at the Anne Arundel County Council.
But then, after the Washington Post in 1998 unenthusiastically announced that Burlison was “back for another go” in his bid for the Anne Arundel County Council, he finally won, ousting the county chairman.
Burlison credits his successes, and his relentless recovery from repeated losses, with a lifelong commitment to politics and the connection he still tries to foster, more than 35 years after he first ran for office, with voters.
He said he has always distinguished his campaigns by following up his door-to-door calls on potential voters with phone calls and personalized note cards — a habit he says has only grown more important with the advent of the Internet.
“More people will appreciate the personal attention” as candidates increasingly depend on Web-based connections with voters, Burlison said. “Telephone, postal service subtly reminds them that I was the one that was by.”
After each visit, Burlison said he notes the name of the young child who answered the door, or the dog that barked in the background, and uses them to personalize his follow-up messages later.
Burlison takes great pride in his house calls, although he said he has had “close calls with vicious dogs” and had his trousers torn along the way. He recalled when he almost fell off the edge of a sidewalk onto a sloped driveway, some 10 feet below.
“If I’d taken one more step,” Burlison said, he could have broken his neck.
Burlison’s pet project throughout his tenure as a participant and observer in politics has been the elimination of the Electoral College.
He said when he first arrived in Congress in 1969, the close presidential election between Richard Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey led him to support a constitutional amendment ending the Electoral College, fearing a candidate could win the popular vote but lose the election.
Burlison said the dangers of the Electoral College again were on display in the 2000 presidential contest between George Bush and Al Gore.
Looking out over the rapidly filling convention floor and invoking his own rejection by voters, Burlison said, “If this gets to be a habit of the loser being inaugurated, then people are going to get sick” of politics.