Retiring Senator Stood Up for Principles

When a long-serving politician retires, we’re often treated to windbag editorials from newspapers and columnists about the virtue of public service, and how the latest retiring politician contributed to it.

Never mind that one of the ways one becomes a long-serving politician is by building up constituencies by doling out pork and patronage, and that many long-serving politicians spend their careers lusting after the perks and privileges of power.

When Congress adjourns this year, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (search), R-Ill., will retire after just one term. He’s retiring because his own party has turned on him and promised to run a primary candidate against him. That’s because this particular senator decided that while he was in office he’d be his own man and vote his own conscience. He wouldn’t be a lackey for his party, he wouldn’t vote pork home to his state, and he wouldn’t do what the special interests who run his party told him to do. And that got him into trouble.

When Fitzgerald announced his retirement last April, he’d already been the scorn of his home state’s newspaper columnists and editorial boards. The Republican Party — both state and national — was elated to see him go. The Washington Times ran an editorial gloating over his departure. No one, it seems, would be shedding any tears over Peter Fitzgerald’s retirement.  That’s too bad, because we need a heck of a lot more Peter Fitzgeralds in Washington.

Six years ago, Fitzgerald ran against troubled incumbent Democrat Carol Moseley Braun (search). He financed his own campaign, indicating early on that he’d be beholden to no one. The media immediately tapped him as a fringe candidate from the Christian right — an ill-informed and unfair characterization. A better label would be “principled.”  Fitzgerald showed more of that rare Washington commodity in one term than most politicians show in a lifetime.

Fitzgerald’s crowning achievement in his brief career was his opposition to the federalization of a planned expansion of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (search). Congress’ seal of approval would have ensured that the $13 billion expansion forge ahead, without any input from Illinois residents, including those who owned the hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses that would have been bulldozed to make way for the new runways. The expansion was pushed by a shady consortium of business developers, who launched a PR campaign just as its major players were making political contributions to prominent and powerful Illinois politicians. Fitzgerald’s opposition to federalizing what should have been a local issue postponed the expansion, which later fizzled when the airlines endured post-Sept. 11 financial problems.

Fitzgerald showed some admirable backbone there, too. He was the only senator in the U.S. Congress to vote against the $15 billion airline bailout, despite the fact that United Airlines is based in Illinois and American Airlines has a major hub at O’Hare.

Fitzgerald next earned the wrath of fellow Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, a fellow Republican and probably the most powerful politician in Illinois, if not the country. Fitzgerald and Hastert first tangled over Fitzgerald’s refusal to support Hastert’s efforts to secure a glut of federal funding for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, located in Illinois. Hastert pulled rank to secure the money, and Fitzgerald criticized him publicly for it.

Fitzgerald then refused sign a letter written by the Illinois’ congressional delegation to President Bush, which requested the White House’s help in securing federal dollars (read: pork) for the state. Fitzgerald infuriated his colleagues when he wrote in a reply, “the mere fact that a project is located somewhere in Illinois does not mean that it is inherently meritorious and necessarily worthy of support.”

One can only guess that Speaker Hastert’s disgust with Fitzgerald stems from Fitzgerald’s principled refusal to play a game Hastert himself has mastered — wasting taxpayer dollars on needless home-district pork barrel projects. The state of Illinois has 19 congressional districts.  According to the Washington Post, Hastert’s district — the 14th — gets a whopping 43 percent of the federal dollars that go to Illinois. This despite that the 14th is one of the richest districts in the state, and is home to just 5 percent of the state’s population.  The Post also reports that nearly one-third of that money — about $5 million — will go to Northern Illinois University, where Hastert earned his graduate degree.

Sen. Fitzgerald’s final sin was to nominate someone outside the state of Illinois to serve as U.S. Attorney for the northern district of Illinois, based in Chicago. In a 2002 hit piece on Fitzgerald, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal scolded, “[t]he junior senator doesn't think that anyone who voted for him is qualified to sit in the U.S. attorney's chair on South Dearborn Street.”

Well, not quite. Instead of rewarding an aspiring local attorney for his political support with the nomination, as is custom in the U.S. Senate, Fitzgerald was more concerned about the ongoing investigation of then-governor and fellow Republican George Ryan, and wanted to be sure an aggressive prosecutor independent of local politics was assigned to the case. So he went out of state and nominated prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation), who indicted Ryan on corruption charges last December.

I’m not a fan of everything Sen. Fitzgerald has done with his six years in Washington. He seems overly fond of arguably needless and wasteful environmental regulations, for example. But I do like that he thinks for himself, that he’s willing to put his neck on the line for honest, accountable government, and that he’s managed in just one term to agitate all the right people — the entrenched politicians, the powerful lobbyists, and the home-state interests hungry for pork.

So if no one else will say it, I will:

It’s too bad that Sen. Peter Fitzgerald is retiring. He deserves a promotion.

Radley Balko is a freelance writer and publishes a Weblog at 

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