Politics & Government

N.C. Sen. Burr avoids D.C. limelight

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Richard Burr has held two significant jobs in his post-college life: appliance salesman and lawmaker.

In the first, he rose through the ranks to become national sales manager - an avid networker and able leader so quick to make and act on decisions, his former boss said, that if the company president changed his mind 10 minutes later about what he wanted Burr to do, it often was already too late.

In the second job, Burr has served nearly 16 years in a behind-the-scenes role in which he rarely seeks the glare of the D.C. spotlight.

And yet at age 54, he remains one of the Senate's younger members, a sharply dressed former football player and occasional hunter.

While he looks the part, Burr isn't on national television much, and he doesn't often call up local newspapers when he comes to town.

"He doesn't look for issues that necessarily draw headlines; he looks for issues that can make a difference for North Carolinians," said Tom Fetzer, the chairman of the state Republican party and one of Burr's oldest friends from their days together in college. "He works very hard, goes to committee hearings, follows the issues and puts forward well-thought-out solutions."

Burr keeps his focus even as he strides Senate hallways, shoulders pitched forward, as if walking into a brisk wind. When he stops to listen to an aide or a constituent, he leans over slightly, cocks his head sideways, as if drawing his ear closer to the speaker.

"He's intense. And when he's thinking and talking to you, it comes across," Fetzer said.

Friends describe him as wonky, interested in how to shape policy.

"He really gets into the weeds," said Kimrey Rhinehardt, who worked for Burr in the House and now serves as the UNC system's vice president for federal relations. "He's the guy who goes to bed at night thinking about policy, and he's the guy who wakes up thinking about policy."

Reporters find themselves in long conversations about the future of, say, medical malpractice tort reform or the philosophy of federal food regulation.

But Burr refused to be interviewed for this story, saying two weeks ago he thought The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer had focused too much recently on his campaign financing in covering his work in Washington. On Monday, Burr said through a spokeswoman that coverage has been biased.

In stump speeches across the state during this campaign, he has talked of his devotion to making a political change on Capitol Hill.

On Saturday in Elizabeth City, Burr began the morning by stepping out of his campaign's "Republican Road to Victory" tour bus. He stood along the sparkling Pasquotank River to rally more than 100 supporters gathered to help him and other conservative candidates in November.

"Boy, God has really shined on this day," Burr began with a smile.

He joked about all the Democrats in Eastern North Carolina - saying he knew he couldn't win statewide without pulling some of them across the aisle to vote for him.

He spoke of how voters have the chance to retire both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. And until members of Congress begin receiving surgical spine implants as a way of changing Washington, Burr said, "the only way is taking people who think they believe more than you, and sending them home."

Burr was born in Charlottesville, Va., on Nov. 30, 1955, but spent most of his childhood in Winston-Salem. His father, David, was pastor at First Presbyterian Church downtown. Burr once told the Winston-Salem Journal that his optimistic view on life came from dinner table discussions about death and tragedy, because that's what his dad dealt with at work.

"We were always exposed to the worst that can happen, and it taught me that there is a lot in life to be excited about," Burr told the paper in 1994. "You have to put yourself in a position to take advantage of all that life has to offer, because you certainly never know when the end is going to happen."

Burr played football in high school and then at Wake Forest University. He never reached his full potential, friends say, because injuries kept sidelining him. He earned the nickname Zipper because of his scars. His WFU football photograph still hangs in the lobby of his Senate office in Washington.

Burr's father helped him get a full-time job after college, demonstrating kerosene heaters for Carswell Distributing Co., a wholesale appliance company.

"He was a pretty energetic guy in the early times. Still is," said Bill Parsley, who was Burr's boss at Carswell and lives a few houses from the Burr family in Winston-Salem.

Burr worked his way up through the company to manage Carswell's sales staff.

"He had wonderful self-confidence," Parsley said. "He had a good sense of people. He was very creative - sometimes more creative than I would've preferred, but that's OK. He was very aggressive from a sales perspective."

When Burr decided he would run for Congress in 1992, friends at first were stunned.

On the campaign trail, Burr tells the story often: how in the early 1990s he was taking his two young sons, William and Tyler, to school. He listened to news on the radio about the recession and a proposed tax increase. He dropped the boys off, swung the car around, and drove home to his wife.

"Brooke," he told her, "I'm running for Congress."

He lost that first race, for the House, in 1992. He won in 1994 when the Democratic incumbent resigned and left an open seat. He pledged to serve 10 years in the House, switched to the Senate in 2004, and now seeks another term.

Through it all, friends say, Burr hasn't changed much.

"There's no pretense with Richard," Fetzer said. "There's no façade. He just is who he is. He likes people. People like him."

On Saturday morning in Elizabeth City, Burr spoke again of his two sons, one of whom was in the crowd.

"The reason I'm running for re-election is personal," Burr told his supporters. "I've got something personal at stake - their future."

Continuing a practice he began during his first House term when those boys were still children, Burr flies back to North Carolina most weekends. He often drives himself and Brooke around the state in his own Acura to Rotary clubs and factory tours. He pops the trunk and pulls out his own easel to display charts about the state of America's finances.

Pat McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor, recalled running into Burr one day in a rural town in Eastern North Carolina during the campaign of 2004, back when McCrory was running for governor and Burr was seeking his first Senate term.

Burr was alone, McCrory recalled.

"No staff, no entourage, no press," McCrory said. "Just visiting plants by himself."

Burr was elected in 1994 with the Republican revolution in the House, and he signed on to the GOP Contract With America. But unlike Newt Gingrich, who campaigned for him in the 1990s, or his friends U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and House Minority Leader John Boehner, Burr rarely makes headlines with fiery statements. He's the guy in the background, carrying a stack of reports.

Behind the scenes, though, Burr is working his way up in national politics.

He ran to be head of the Republican conference in the Senate in 2007, a position that would have made him third-ranking member of his party. He lost to Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Burr appeared on a long list of potential vice presidential picks for U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008. And he would amuse observers in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he campaigned for McCain, by wearing his loafers without socks, even with 2 feet of snow on the ground.

Burr was named chief deputy whip in 2009, which put him on the GOP leadership team.

And when the tea party movement came to Washington last year, Burr climbed aboard.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we see you as the cavalry," Burr told an anti-health legislation rally last December. "We see this movement around the country of the American people saying, 'Enough is enough.'"

The social conservatism comes from his dad, friends say. But from his father he also got an interest in helping others, and he has worked to build an office strong on constituent service.

"His daddy was a preacher, and he inherited some of that - being altruistic, helping your parishioners," said former Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Broyhill, who now lives in Winston-Salem and served as a mentor during Burr's early years in Congress.

Rhinehardt, the former Burr staffer, said the senator always made time for constituents.

"From a staffer perspective, it was sometimes tough because he would drop everything. If someone wanted a tour of the Capitol, then by God they were going to get a tour of the Capitol," she recalled. "Every person in his office gave Capitol tours."

Some say he's done well at working across the aisle with Democrats. He and U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, a Democrat whose district includes part of Winston-Salem, have worked closely on some issues.

After Democrat Erskine Bowles lost a bruising Senate race to Burr in 2004, Bowles became president of the UNC system. The two men have been known to sit side-by-side at UNC-Chapel Hill basketball games, and last year joined for an economic development summit in Durham. At that event, Bowles said of Burr, "Nobody works harder or smarter for North Carolina."

More recently, Bowles said, simply, "I have nothing but good things to say about him."