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MAY 13, 2003

Departing Sen. Fitzgerald termed a ‘loner’

For once, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) and the Illinois GOP delegation are in agreement: Both are relieved that he’s decided to leave the Senate.

“A great burden has been lifted off my shoulder,” Fitzgerald said in a brief interview: “I’ve made my son’s first and second Little League game in a row.”

Other congressional Republicans who clashed repeatedly with Fitzgerald during his single Senate term sounded even more sanguine about his departure.

“Peter was his own worst enemy,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). “Peter has no friends in our delegation. He never reached out to the delegation.”

FILE PHOTO
Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.)

Fitzgerald announced over the spring recess that he would not seek re-election, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. Although there are many advantages to having an incumbent defend the seat in a state that is trending Democratic, many Republicans welcomed the retirement of a maverick who had bucked the party on several high-profile issues.

“He was the No. 1 target for the Democrats,” said LaHood. “They were going to have a top-tier candidate against him and spend a lot of money. I’m glad he’s not running. It’s good for the party. We can hold onto the seat.”

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.): Burned by Fitzgerald’s remarks.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said the party was “much better off” in the race without Fitzgerald, whom Shimkus said he got along with. “Peter had burnt so many bridges in all the levels of the party,” he said. “You have six years to be a senator. When you decide the last two years of your six-year term to start cozying up to your party, people [begin] … questioning [his] motives.”

Nevertheless, the GOP optimism was based in part on a belief, which turned out to be incorrect, that former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar would get into the race.

Fitzgerald is independently wealthy and came into politics from outside of the party organization — spending $14.6 million to win his 1998 primary and then defeat Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.

In Washington, his term was characterized by a series of spats with other Illinois Republicans. Although Fitzgerald sometimes was able to connect with voters through his independent stands, he soon found himself facing a tough re-election without many allies.

Fitzgerald once filibustered a spending bill because it contained a provision to fund construction of the Lincoln Library in Illinois. He said the $50 million appropriation, backed by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), would be used by then-Gov. George Ryan (R) to aid political cronies. LaHood last week called Fitzgerald’s conduct on the matter unforgivable.

“When you fashion yourself as an independent, you’re not a member of a party,” said LaHood. “I think trashing the Speaker hurt him very badly.”

Fitzgerald even took on another notable maverick, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), on maintaining flight restrictions at Chicago’s O’Hare airport — irking other Republicans who wanted to increase air service in the state.

LaHood, who is close to Hastert, said that working with friends and allies is “how you get anything done around here. Loners and independents very seldom get anything done. Our system is working within a party and across party lines in order to get things done. Peter was never willing to do that.”

LaHood conceded that the public often rewards politicians who buck the system. “But when you do it on a consistent basis and trash the people who get things done, you in effect become ineffective,” he said.

Shimkus faulted Fitzgerald for his handling of the appointment of federal marshals, saying Fitzgerald essentially was promoting “discrimination against good Republicans” by failing to put forward anyone with party credentials.

Fitzgerald also angered Hastert by failing to give him a say in the appointment of U.S. attorneys — traditionally a senator’s prerogative — and by not working together to secure funding for projects for the state.

“One thing in politics is you can’t win without your base,” said Shimkus. “You’ve got to have a foundation, and your party is your foundation.”

There were some clear advantages for Fitzgerald’s decision to distance himself from the state GOP, still reeling from the scandals that led to Ryan’s defeat.

Like McCain, Fitzgerald took some high-profile stands against what he considered wasteful spending in a way that can appeal to voters.

Fitzgerald said he could have retained his seat but wanted to spend the next year and a half being “the best senator I can,” rather than constantly campaigning. “It would require full-time devotion as a candidate. I would not be a senator or a father. I would only be a candidate,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine Fitzgerald’s having any more freedom than he already enjoys as a lame duck to choose his own political positions.

“I will continue to vote my conscience,” he said. Fitzgerald reaffirmed his strong support for the president’s dividend tax cut and other tax policies last week.

His departure, coupled with Edgar’s announcement, gives Hastert an opportunity to solidify his position further as the kingmaker of Illinois politics. “Hastert always was, has been and will be the leader in our party,” said LaHood. “He has no peer in our party when it comes to leadership.”

Fitzgerald disputed the notion that Hastert was already running the show in Illinois Republican politics. “Most people, really about half the people, don’t even know who the Speaker is,” he said. “He really isn’t a factor in terms of public opinion in the state.”

“He was very cozy and clubby with our former Gov. George Ryan,” Fitzgerald continued. “That only helped me.”

Asked whether Hastert would steer the succession of his Senate seat, Fitzgerald at first disagreed. “If there’s a Republican senator, the Republican senator would,” he said. But then Fitzgerald appeared to reconsider. “I’m not a machine guy. Hastert’s the machine guy, so I’ll leave the machine politics to him.”