State of the State: Story of Fitzgerald depends on the narrator's perspective

Jun 1, 2003

Aaron Chambers
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

The way U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald tells the story of his legacy, he’s leaving at the top of his game.

He installed three independent U.S. attorneys in Illinois. He blocked efforts on Capitol Hill to cement into federal law a deal to expand O’Hare International Airport. And — an accomplishment that seems to give him the most satisfaction — he bucked the state’s GOP establishment.

The outgoing senator even has statistical data to demonstrate this last point. In early April, the Republican from Inverness released the results of a lengthy poll in which he pitted himself against likely Democratic contenders for his seat, including Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, millionaire Blair Hull and state Sen. Barack Obama of Chicago.

He also tested his chances against a vocal Republican critic in the state’s Congressional delegation and his most powerful adversary in the state GOP: U.S. Rep Ray LaHood of Peoria and U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Yorkville, respectively.

He won all of the projected races, Fitzgerald proudly notes. “Who has more friends in the Republican Party in Illinois?” he asks. “No one in that poll.”

Yet two days later it was reported that the senator would not seek re-election, prompting pundits to suggest that Fitzgerald simply wanted people to think he wasn’t running from a probable loss. Strategists in both parties regarded him as the most vulnerable senator facing re-election in 2004. 

Fitzgerald says he’s retiring from the Senate after one term to spend more time with his family — though he also says Republicans are at a disadvantage in a state that has leaned Democratic in recent elections. He argues the poll was intended to disprove naysayers. 

“It shows there’s no Republican in the state who could have beat me in the primary. No one. It also shows that I beat all the Democrats.”

But some of Fitzgerald’s greatest opponents have been members of his own party. It’s only natural. There’s always conflict between a political establishment and somebody who works outside its scope. Somebody elected without party support is not beholden to its interests. The senator’s defenders say he simply plays hardball with party leaders who mistreat him. From the party’s perspective, Fitzgerald promotes antagonism to further his personal political agenda. In any case, the friction clearly is mutual. 

Fitzgerald says he's retiring from the U.S. Senate after one term to spend more time with his family - though he also says Republicans are at a disadvantage in a state that has leaned Democratic in recent elections.

“I think the Illinois Republican Party has adopted too much the model of the Chicago Democrats and tried to engage in machine politics that is based on patronage and contracts and leases and spoils,” he says. “It’s rare that the people of Illinois have an independent voice, and I count that as my greatest accomplishment.”

In a move that still irks party regulars, Fitzgerald used a speech on the Senate floor to lump Hastert into former Gov. George Ryan’s political combine. Fitzgerald suggests the distance between Hastert and him is “more on his part than on mine” and adds the distance seems to have evolved from Hastert’s desire to influence the U.S. attorney appointments. A Hastert aide disputes both notions. 

Having underwritten most of his campaign — and having declined to seek re-election — Fitzgerald can afford to criticize his party. Of the $14.8 million the former banker spent on his 1998 campaign, nearly $12 million was his own money, according to data collected by the Federal Election Commission.

Fitzgerald insists that’s not necessarily the cost of political independence, but acknowledges he enjoys a certain freedom from special interests: “I do think that the fact that I wasn’t beholden to a bunch of nefarious interests when I came into the Senate certainly made it easier to vote my own conscience.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to pigeonhole Fitzgerald based on his work in the Senate. Unusual for Republicans, for instance, he has a strong record of voting to protect the environment. And in blocking the O’Hare expansion legislation, he opposed Chicago-area corporate executives, traditional Republican allies. He earns moderate marks from major business groups.

“He’s been nothing anyone expected,” says Tripp Baird, director of Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “When he ran for the Senate, everyone thought he was this archconservative. He got to the Senate and ended up being a pretty moderate senator. As he’s leaving, he’s hard to put in a box; whether you’re of a conservative or liberal persuasion, I think it’s a mixed bag.”

The League of Conservation Voters gave him a 52 percent rating for the session of Congress that ended last year. That means he voted with the group a little more than half of the time. Ratings for Democrats on environmental issues tend to be much higher, but it’s a strong rating for a Republican.

“A story that’s told a little bit better than just the numbers of votes and the percentages,” says Debbie Sease, legislative director at the Sierra Club, “is that he has stepped out on some issues, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which were a very high priority for the environmental community, and I think a very high priority on the other side for the Bush Administration.”

Fitzgerald earned an 82 percent cumulative rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a 75 percent rating for the last Congress from the National Association of Manufacturers.

At home, Fitzgerald managed to shake up the political establishment by recommending the federal prosecutors and obstructing the O’Hare deal.

He tapped hard-charging prosecutors to lead Illinois’ three federal court districts. Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation to the senator), the U.S. attorney for the Chicago-based northern district, took office in 2001. He has continued the five-year federal Operation Safe Road investigation that has produced 56 convictions, including Ryan’s campaign committee and his chief of staff when he was secretary of state.

Blocking the expansion plan could top Fitzgerald’s legacy. The legislation would have codified a deal between Ryan and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who controls the airport. Fitzgerald says his opposition to the plan stemmed from his belief that expansion was designed to quash development of a third airport in the Chicago area.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat who spearheaded the plan in Congress, echoes GOP regulars in saying Fitzgerald’s delivery hurt his credibility. “On a personal level, I’ve tried to separate our differences on issues, even our difference on O’Hare, and I’ve always tried to find a way to open up a line of communication,” he says. “But I have to be very candid: That experience over the O’Hare filibuster took its toll.”

Durbin says Fitzgerald reneged on a deal to permit a vote on the expansion legislation. He says it is was clear to him, through Fitzgerald’s objections, that the Republican would block the vote with a filibuster. Fitzgerald responds that he did not, in fact, intend to block the expansion measure, and that he would have prevailed had it been subjected to a vote.

Fitzgerald stood alone on other issues. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was the only senator to vote against a $15 billion bailout for the ailing airline industry. He argues they should have been compensated just for losses sustained in the few days the federal government ordered airports shuttered. Subsequent to the attacks, which sacked an already slumping economy and devastated the airline industry, Illinois-based United Airlines declared bankruptcy. Texas-based American Airlines, the other dominant carrier at O’Hare, threatened to do so, but in April that company reached a cost-saving deal with its employee unions.

Fitzgerald takes credit, though, for saving United and American, the nation’s two largest passenger carriers, from greater financial distress. Had Congress moved forward on the expansion plan, he says, those companies would have had to agree to $400 million a year each in debt service on bonds to pay for it. “United and American would have no hope of reorganizing. American would be in bankruptcy and have no hope of getting out.”

American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan responds that Fitzgerald misunderstands the airline industry, and the structure of the expansion deal. “Here’s the problem: We don’t need him,” she says. “We have a governor who is a Democrat.”

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the Democrat she speaks of, has pledged to support an effort to modify state law, rather than federal law, to effect the agreement. Legislation was expected to move at the Statehouse late in the spring session.

Illinois GOP leaders are reluctant to engage in a dialogue with Fitzgerald. Judy Baar Topinka, the state treasurer and state party chair, and Bob Kjellander, the state’s GOP national committeeman, declined to respond to Fitzgerald’s strikes at the party, or the poll results.

Yet it’s clear Fitzgerald would not enjoy their support in the next election. He probably would be forced to spend another small fortune, as he did in 1998. He says he’d be happy to spend the cash in the interest of public service, and he downplays the obvious disadvantage posed by lack of support from the party. 

As for tension with Hastert, Fitzgerald balks at any suggestion that it motivated his decision to retire. “The polling we released showed that most people don’t know who he is.” 

 

Aaron Chambers can be reached at statehousebureau@aol.com

 

Illinois Issues, June 2003