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Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009 05:23 am

Back to help Burris

Voss returns from retirement to be downstate director

Jimmie Voss holds up one of the thousands of letters he and his staff sort through at the Springfield office of Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) Voss first worked for Burris 31 years ago.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

In a corner office on the top floor of the Illinois Building, overlooking the Old State Capitol, photos of famous people hang proudly on the wall. Jimmie Voss smiles widely in each photo, standing next to folks like former Gov. Jim Edgar, former Chicago Bull Scotty Pippen and the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.

“I met him in the airport,” Voss said of Kennedy, who recently died of brain cancer. “The thing I remember most about him is that he sincerely wanted to help people.”

Voss says he wants to do the same, and as the new downstate director for U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., Voss is in a good position to do just that.

Handling Burris’ constituent services since Voss’ appointment on Aug. 28, he must sort through mountains of mail each day and handle calls from Illinois citizens on subjects ranging from home foreclosure to health care reform. As head of the Springfield office he oversees six staffers and four interns.

“We both have a penchant for service,” Voss said, explaining why he and Burris get along well. “We both like to serve the public. Plus, this was an opportunity to do something I never thought about doing. It’s been exciting.”

A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Voss was born in Port Gibson, Miss., where he took a shortcut that would change his life.

On the way to class at Jackson State University in Mississippi one particularly hot day in 1972, Voss cut through an air-conditioned building, where he met two African American recruiters from Springfield who were working for Illinois Gov. Richard Ogilvie.

“I didn’t even know they had any blacks in Springfield,” Voss joked. “Next thing I know, they’re bringing me up here for an interview.”

Voss worked in the Bureau of the Budget under Ogilvie, and eventually went to work for Burris in 1978, during Burris’ stint as Illinois comptroller. Since then, Voss has held posts in the attorney general’s office and the Department of Revenue.

The 62-year-old Voss worked as a private consultant after leaving the public sector, and he briefly tried retirement until Burris contacted him to return to public service.

Voss now handles Burris’ business in the 95 Illinois counties outside of the Chicago area, scheduling the senator’s appearances and keeping him informed of constituent concerns.

Voss said much of the mail he sorts doesn’t even pertain to issues over which Burris has any authority.

“Here’s one on the increase in the cigarette tax,” Voss laughed, holding up a letter typed in bold, all-capital letters, full of misspellings and factual errors. Though the letter was addressed to Burris, it was written for Gov. Pat Quinn, saying impeached-governor Rod Blagojevich (or Balgovich, as the letter spelled it) was a saint, and Quinn is the “worse governor ever.”

“Much of what we do is dealing with misinformation,” Voss continued, saying the national health care debate is a perfect example.

“It’s insane to even think that anyone would have a death camp or ration medicine to senior citizens,” he said, addressing misguided concerns many constituents have conveyed to him. “That’s ludicrous.”

He is a past president of the Springfield NAACP and served as the group’s political action coordinator for more than 20 years. He has also served on the boards of the Springfield YWCA, United Way, Springfield Urban League, Girl Scouts and Mu Delta Lambda, Springfield’s chapter of the national Alpha Phi Alpha minority fraternity organization.

“I get to learn a lot about a lot of things,” Voss said of his new job. “I have a really good time.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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