With help from his party’s redistricting efforts, scientist and Democratic former Rep. Bill Foster is returning to the House after dispatching Rep. Judy Biggert, one of the chamber’s few remaining Republican moderates. Foster initially came to Congress in a special election following the resignation of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., only to lose in 2010 to Republican Randy Hultgren.
Foster began life as a Washington insider. His parents met on Capitol Hill, where each worked for a senator. His father became a law professor at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), and Foster grew up there; graduated from the university, and went on to get his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. He was a physicist for 16 years at Fermilab, where he was involved in groundbreaking research in elementary particle physics. Foster also ran a theater-lighting business with his younger brother that made them both multimillionaires.
He had not sought public office before volunteering in the 2006 congressional campaign of Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat who ousted a Republican incumbent. At age 52, Foster then spent five months working on Murphy’s Capitol Hill staff.
After Hastert resigned his seat in 2007, Foster ran in the Democratic primary against the more liberal Jonathan Laesch, who had lost to Hastert in 2006. Foster won the primary, 50 percent to 43 percent. In the March 2008 special general election, he faced Republican Jim Oberweis, a successful dairy owner who had lost numerous statewide campaigns. Amid the clutter of negative charges and countercharges, Foster got a boost from a 30-second endorsement from the Obama campaign. He won, 53 percent to 47 percent, and defeated Oberweis again in regular general election in November. Foster was the first Democrat to represent the north-central Illinois 14th District since the Great Depression.
In the House, Foster got a seat on the Financial Services Committee, where he supported the bailout of the financial markets. He also helped to restore $62.5 million in funding for Fermilab. He voted for the $787 billion economic-stimulus legislation and the 2010 health care overhaul. In the 2010 general-election race, Foster did not mention his party affiliation and raised significantly more money than Hultgren. But Hultgren still won, 51 percent to 45 percent.
During 2011 redistricting, Democrats carved out a new, liberal-leaning 11th District that covers the towns of Joliet and Aurora and part of exurban Naperville. Foster moved from Batavia to Naperville to run in the new district and easily beat two Democratic primary rivals. But Biggert’s moderate stripes made her an elusive target in the general election. She got financial backing from the Republican American Unity PAC, which supports gay rights. Foster accused Biggert of supporting Social Security privatization, although her campaign maintained that she has always opposed full privatization.
At a face-to-face meeting with the Chicago Tribune editorial board, Foster tried to tie Biggert to President George W. Bush’s economic policies that “eviscerated U.S. manufacturing.” Biggert snapped back, “You Democrats have never talked about anything that you’re going to do. It’s always what we did wrong.” At the same forum, Foster mentioned three areas he would cut in the federal budget, starting with military aircraft and crop-insurance subsidies. But in a mental lapse that the Tribune compared to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s during the GOP presidential primaries, Foster blanked on the third program he planned to cut and said, “I’ll go back to it.” It wasn’t always pretty, but Foster won.