Sen. Richard Durbin (D)
Elected: 1996, term expires 2014, 3rd term.
Born: Nov. 21, 1944, E. St. Louis .
Education: Georgetown U., B.S. 1966, J.D. 1969.
Family: Married (Loretta); 3 children (1 deceased).
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1982–96.
Professional Career: Staff, Lt. Gov. Paul Simon, 1969–72; Legal cnsl., IL Sen. Judiciary Cmte., 1972–82; Prof., S. IL Schl. of Medicine, 1978–82.
The senior senator from Illinois is Richard Durbin, a Democrat first elected to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1996. He is now the assistant majority leader and Democratic whip, making him the second-ranking leader in the Senate, after Majority Leader Harry Reid. Durbin grew up in East St. Louis, the youngest of three brothers. His father, a railroad night watchman, died of lung cancer when Durbin was 14. He graduated from Georgetown University and its law school, and then returned to Illinois with an ambition for politics. He joined Democrat Paul Simon’s staff when Simon was the lieutenant governor (1969-73), then was a state Senate staffer in the 1970s. Durbin lost races for the state Senate in 1976 and for lieutenant governor in 1978, but in 1982, won the nomination to oppose Republican Rep. Paul Findley, who had characterized himself as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s best friend in Congress. Durbin had no trouble raising money from well-heeled Israel supporters. Durbin won that race, got a seat on the House Agriculture Committee and then moved to Appropriations, where in 1993, he became chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee. Durbin’s centerpiece legislation in the House was the 1988 ban on smoking on domestic airline flights, a battled inspired by the death at a young age of his chain-smoking father. He followed that up by trying to limit tobacco subsidies and to give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco as a health hazard. “I didn’t realize it would trigger a change in America,” he later said of the airline smoking ban, but indeed it led to smoking bans in many more settings. After his onetime boss, U.S. Sen. Simon, announced his retirement, Durbin won his Senate seat in 1996. Raising more than $1 million, he outspent former state Treasurer (now Governor) Pat Quinn in the March 1996 primary and won 65%-30%. In the general, he faced trial lawyer and abortion opponent Al Salvi and won 56%-41%.
|Richard Durbin (D)||3,615,844||(68%)||($8,016,455)|
|Steve Sauerberg (R)||1,520,621||(29%)||($1,034,454)|
|Kathy Cummings (Green)||119,135||(2%)|
|Richard Durbin (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (60%), 1996 (56%), 1994 House (55%), 1994 House (55%), 1992 House (57%), 1990 House (66%), 1988 House (69%), 1986 House (68%), 1984 House (61%), 1982 House (50%)
In the Senate, Durbin has compiled a liberal voting record—in 2008 he was in the top 10 most liberal senators, according to National Journal’s annual vote analysis—though he has supported welfare reform and the death penalty. He has been an active and dependable Democratic partisan on the floor and on cable news networks, espousing support for farm disaster aid, deductibility of health insurance for the self-employed, reductions in interest rates on student loans and full funding of Pell grants. While serving in the House, Durbin favored restrictions on abortion, but has opposed most legislation to restrict abortion since coming to the Senate. This has had some negative fallout for him among his fellow Catholics. In April 2004, the priest at his home church in Springfield said that he wouldn’t give him communion. On other domestic issues, Durbin has had a very strong pro-union voting record, but split with labor on trade, supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement and normal trade relations with China. Illinois is a big exporter. But in 2006, Durbin said he felt “betrayed” by the results of NAFTA and has opposed more recent trade agreements.
In 2001, former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle appointed him assistant Democratic floor leader. After Daschle’s defeat in 2004 and the elevation of Reid as minority leader, Durbin became minority whip, and then majority whip in January 2007, after Democrats won control of the Senate.
He serves on the Judiciary Committee and has been a strong opponent of many Bush administration judicial nominees, including Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito. In his early years in the Senate, he attempted to move his goal of gun control incrementally forward, without success. Durbin took a lead role on asbestos legislation in 2003. He negotiated with Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, on a bill backed by Illinois-based businesses that established quick recovery for injured plaintiffs and reduced the burden on businesses only tangentially connected with asbestos. But the two failed to produce a compromise bill. In 2006, he helped defeat the asbestos trust fund sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, which would have replaced a multitude of lawsuits against the asbestos industry with a $140 billion trust fund to compensate victims. Durbin strongly opposed taking the matter out of the courts, although he conceded the need for “significant changes in the existing tort system.” In 2003, Minority Leader Daschle made Durbin the Democrats’ point man on efforts to limit damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, and he successfully blocked action on the legislation.
In more recent legislative battles, Durbin in 2007 sponsored an amendment to the farm bill to create a single agency to monitor the food supply. He was also the chief sponsor of a bill to allow high school graduates who are illegal immigrants to go to U.S. colleges. The outcome was 52-44, short of the 60 votes needed. Throughout 2008 and early 2009, Durbin pushed for his “cram-down” bill allowing bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of distressed mortgages on primary residences in bankruptcy cases. In September 2008, when the Senate was considering the $700-billion bailout of the financial markets, Durbin, echoing the sentiments of many lawmakers, said, “I want to do the right thing. I’m not sure what the right thing is.” He decided to support the bill.
Durbin voted against the Gulf War resolution in 1991 and the Iraq war resolution in 2002, though he voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq when President Clinton was president in February 1998. He supported a Senate measure to withdraw troops from Iraq by March 2008. On a trip to Iraq in 2007, he said he saw signs of progress but was more pessimistic than ever. “More than any of my other visits, I felt tragedy,” he said. In September 2007, before Gen. David Petraeus’s report to Congress, Durbin called it the “Bush-Petraeus report” and said, “By carefully manipulating the statistics, the report will try to convince us the surge is working. Even if the statistics are right, the surge is wrong.”
In June 2005, Durbin was at the center of a storm over remarks he made from the Senate floor concerning detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Citing an FBI report that described the mistreatment of some prisoners, Durbin likened the American interrogators to “Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings.” His comments dominated the news cycle for days. Durbin at first said he regretted the misunderstanding of his remarks, but after Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley criticized them, he issued an emotional apology from the Senate floor. In December 2007, Durbin demanded an investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency’s destruction of two videotapes showing agents using extreme interrogation methods.
Durbin’s leadership position enables him to work effectively on local issues. He worked with former Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois on funding Metra and the CTA mass-transit systems for the Chicago region, on Mississippi River locks and dams, and for O’Hare Airport expansion. He has worked for ethanol tax incentives and pushed for an ethanol research pilot plant at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. On the Appropriations Committee, he keeps an eye out for Chicago’s commodities exchanges, opposing new fees on the exchanges and in 2008 working behind the scenes to soften the impact of proposed controls on speculators in the oil futures market as gas prices soared. Durbin is also a champion of the $4.6 billion FutureGen clean-coal project in Mattoon, which critics have derisively called “the biggest earmark in history.” The Bush Energy Department declined to build FutureGen, but Durbin renewed the push in 2009 with the more supportive Obama administration.
Many senators have tense relationships with home-state colleagues, but Durbin had a warm relationship with Obama after he was elected in 2004. Rather than chafing at Obama’s quick rise and celebrity, Durbin in November 2006 urged him to run for president. He endorsed Obama when he announced his candidacy in February 2007. When Obama was elected, Durbin said, “To have a president of the United States who is a close personal friend and has the opportunity to lead this nation and change the world is a dream come true for me in public life.” Obama said that Durbin “has been very generous with advice and counsel” and is “a terrific partner.”
Durbin did not have a close relationship with Gov. Rod Blagojevich. After Blagojevich’s arrest in December 2008 in a “pay to play” scandal, Durbin called on the state Legislature to pass a law ruling that Obama’s seat had to be filled by a special election. Blagojevich was caught on investigators’ wiretaps apparently trying to benefit politically and personally from his power to name Obama’s successor in the Senate. Blagojevich denied wrongdoing and went ahead and appointed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the Senate in December 2008. By the following February, it was plain that Burris had given a misleading impression of his contacts with the tainted governor’s associates about the terms of his appointment to the seat. Durbin urged Burris to resign, but Burris refused.
Durbin was mentioned briefly in 2000 as a possible vice presidential nominee. He was asked to provide information to the Gore campaign in June, but four days later removed his name from consideration. In 2004, he was not much mentioned as a vice presidential nominee and played only a small role, introducing his soon-to-be colleague Obama at the Democratic National Convention. In his 2008 re-election campaign, Durbin was opposed by physician Steven Sauerberg, who loaned his campaign $1.7 million but spent only $1 million, while Durbin spent $13 million. Sauerberg criticized Durbin for his 2005 “Nazis” statement, but the issue proved to have little traction. Durbin won 68%-29%.