Editor's Note: Former U.S. Rep Writes About 'Playing with the Big Boys'

May 1, 2013

Dana Heupel
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
“Moderates are on their way to becoming extinct on both sides of the aisle, and if you happen to be one, you better not tell anyone because you will be gone in your next primary.”

So writes former Illinois Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson in her recent book titled Playing Ball with the Big Boys: And Why the Big Girls Better Get in the Game.

Halvorson, the first female majority leader in the Illinois Senate, was elected to Congress in 2008 in a district southeast of Chicago. She was swept out along with many other freshman Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, losing to Tea Party GOP challenger Adam Kinzinger. She ran in the 2012 primary against U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in a remapped district but lost, and ran unsuccessfully again this year after Jackson resigned in disgrace. Her book, self-published by her government consulting firm, Solutions Unlimited, pulls few punches in laying out her career in politics, which began with her 1993 election as Crete Township clerk.

Because Halvorson was a Democrat elected in a primarily Republican area, she says, Michael Madigan, then-House minority leader, and Emil Jones Jr., then Senate minority leader, recruited her in 1996 to run against longtime GOP incumbent state Sen. Aldo DeAngelis. It was during that successful campaign when she first met another Democratic Senate hopeful, Barack Obama.

Playing Ball with the Big Boys by Debbie Halvorson
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

“Since Obama had no opposition,” Halvorson writes, “he offered to help in other campaigns, so I dropped by the small civil rights law office where he worked, and he wrote me a check for a campaign contribution. Barack gave the impression of a friendly, but very serious, young man whose ambition was evident from the start. He promised to come down and campaign for me, and he did so several weeks later.” Obama walked door to door for her in the upper middle-class neighborhood of South Holland, she writes, and they ended up sharing a political staffer.

Throughout the book, which Halvorson calls a “memoir kept in the form of a journal,” she intermittently describes her encounters with the future president. She is ultimately supportive but by no means a sycophant as their careers develop and they disagree over several policy and political issues. For instance, during the congressional fight over the Affordable Health Care Act, she writes: “There was much speculation in the press about why Obama, who had shown his talents as a gifted communicator throughout the election, seemed to keep above the fray and let Congress fight it out amongst themselves on the health care issue. We all believed his leadership on this issue would have made the passage of the health care bill go much more smoothly.”

Halvorson also expresses strong feelings about other political leaders whom she dealt with during her career. About former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, she writes, “Edgar held onto his political capital by leaving in place a system that rewarded powerful and corrupt political insiders like William Cellini,” a Springfield businessman who was convicted in 2011 in a shakedown scheme over Teachers’ Retirement System investments. And while not condoning the actions of former Republican Gov. George Ryan, who was convicted of corruption, she describes him as “down to earth, friendly and unpretentious. … George Ryan’s word could be counted on, in contrast to his successor, Rod Blagojevich.”

Although Halvorson says she looked forward to working with a Democratic administration when Blagojevich was elected, she writes: “It didn’t take long to see that Governor Blagojevich had an inflated view of himself that obscured his ability to grasp the reality of the forces displayed against him and his own ability to overcome them. His vanity was evident to all who dealt with him. An aide assigned to him carried a case that contained a fancy hairbrush known as ‘the football,’ a sort of comic counterpart to the nuclear code information package, also known as the ‘football,’ that accompanies a U.S. president when he travels.”

Debbie Halvorson
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Two bills she sponsored in the Illinois Senate, she says, played a role in Blagojevich’s downfall, which ended in impeachment and conviction on criminal charges. One was legislation regulating landfills that led to a very public spat between the governor and his father-in-law, Chicago Ald. Dick Mell. The argument led to Mell’s proclaiming that Blagojevich was selling state jobs for campaign contributions. The other was her work on bipartisan ethics reform legislation that at least dampened the state’s “pay to play” culture.

Halvorson also details various dustups she had with Speaker Madigan and Senate President Jones, pointing to Madigan’s actions to block Blagojevich at every turn and Jones’ refusal to endorse her in her primary race against Jackson.

She relates incidents from her personal life that led to her political beliefs. When she was a child, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, but her father, a self-employed furniture restorer, could not afford health insurance. “It was difficult,” she writes, “to watch as they fought the bills instead of being able to concentrate on fighting the illness,” from which her mother eventually survived. While working as a resident assistant at a dormitory at Robert Morris University in Carthage, she writes, she took another girl to Iowa to get an abortion after weeks of wrenching discussion. “Because of this experience, I believe that no one, especially the government, should ever force their beliefs on another and am pro-choice.” Her discovery in 2002 that she had contracted the human papillomavirus (HPV), which carries a high risk of cervical cancer, led her to fight for legislation to require insurance companies to pay for a preventive vaccine. And she became deeply involved in veterans issues after her stepson was injured in Afghanistan in 2008.

It’s difficult to discern whether Halvorson’s decision to write her book was political, a promotional tool for her business or a genuine desire to persuade women to push ahead in public service. It was published in November 2012, when it was becoming clear that Jackson might not finish his term. “As this book is being written, Jackson still continues to be investigated. … Jackson has had problems for quite some time, and I didn’t run against him [in the primary] to be mean or vindictive,” she writes. “I ran against him because I knew that I could do better, and this district would need someone who would be around to represent the people.” More than likely, her venture into authorship was a combination of all three motivations.

Overall, Playing Ball with the Big Boys is an interesting and entertaining read for anyone who wants an inside observation on the last two decades of Illinois and congressional politics. It can be purchased at www.playingballwiththebigboys.com.

Illinois Issues, May 2013