How did Burns, the mild-mannered, 72-year old freshman Republican, end up with one of the hardest jobs in the Capitol weeks into his tenure?
For starters, Burns is not a typical first-term senator. The Fulbright scholar and Ph.D. has already served in Congress, representing the 12th Congressional District for one term before Democrat John Barrow defeated him in 2004.
After a career as an information systems consultant and professor, he became the dean of the University of North Georgia’s newly formed business school, and then president of Gordon State College in Barnesville.
Burns had already retired on what he calls his family’s “two-mule farm” in Sylvania, Ga., when Sen. Jesse Stone announced he wouldn’t run for reelection.
“If you choose to ignore opportunities, you may or may not have that chance in the future,” Burns said. “Especially at my age.”
So he ran for office again at 71 and won with the support of Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who, as the president of the Senate, also chooses the Senate committee chairs.
Duncan tapped Burns for the Ethics Committee job after watching him during the campaign.
“We knew (elections) would be an emotional and potentially very partisan issue,” said John Porter, Duncan’s chief of staff. “We felt Burns had the right experience and demeanor and maturity.”
Burns himself wasn’t exactly looking for the job.
“I put in my requests for committees and I want you to know, Ethics wasn’t on the top of my list,” Burns said.
In truth, Ethics wasn’t even on his list. “But after some conversations, they indicated, ‘Perhaps you can be of service.’”
As a first-year lawmaker, Burns had the extra appeal for Duncan of not being a part of the state Senate’s many competing factions and power centers as elections came to the forefront.
But choosing a freshman to chair the crucial committee has downsides, too.
“I wish they’d chosen someone with more experience,” said Sen. Gloria Butler, the Senate’s top Democrat who also sits on the Ethics Committee. “He doesn’t know the rules yet and you can’t make up the rules as you go.”
She described Burns as “very respectful” and “eager to do a good job.”
“But he’s falling a little short of that because he’s new.”
The challenge for Burns was on vivid display at a 7:30 hearing Thursday morning, one of four last week alone, to debate a new elections package from Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, portions of which conflicted with a bill supported by Duncan.
Sen. Brian Strickland, the Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee, moved to strike that portion of Dugan’s proposal.
But could the committee vote on Strickland’s amendment if they’d already agreed not to vote on Dugan’s bill, since the Majority Leader had changed his bill since introducing it just the day before?
Are you confused yet? So was everybody else.
Burns acknowledged in an interview that he’d rather have a process, and even a daily schedule, with more structure and predictability. But that’s not how the state Senate works.
“One of the things I’ve learned is you have to find a way to be flexible,” Burns said.
For Georgians watching from afar, Burns’ most relevant qualification may be that he does not appear to have an obvious ax to grind over the last election, or the election before that, or the election before that.
Instead, he said he sees his role this year as “the facilitator.”
He was not among the GOP senators who brought Rudy Giuliani to testify against the Georgia election results in December, nor did Burns join the Texas lawsuit against the state to overturn the November election results.
Burns said he was disappointed in the November outcome as a conservative Republican.
But did he think that there was massive fraud that cost President Trump the election in Georgia?
“I have no evidence that would suggest that the election was inaccurate,” he said.
Like most of his fellow Republicans, Burns said his goals are for all legal votes to be counted and for voters to have confidence in the system. But unlike many of his GOP colleagues, he added that he wants to be fair to all sides and for them to feel they have had their voices heard.
Despite the mess he walked into, Burns said he’s happy he’s got the job he didn’t want in the first place.
“When I qualified in February, there was no COVID. There was no election issue.”
He then pointed to a parable in the Bible’s Book of Esther.
He doesn’t think he was sent to save his people from annihilation as Esther was, he said.
“But the essence of Esther is perhaps you were put here for times like these,” he said. “So maybe I’m here because of all that? And I hope that I can do a decent job.”