A retired lawyer and former adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, Bill Enyart says he wants to “level the playing field” for working people. His focus on that voting bloc succeeded in keeping the suburban St. Louis seat currently held by retiring Rep. Jerry Costello in Democratic hands.
Enyart grew up in the farming community of Tuscola, Ill. His mother clerked at a dime store, and his father worked as a carpenter, baker, and janitor, among other jobs. At one point, both he and his father worked at the same Caterpillar factory. Enyart’s teenage enthusiasm for President John F. Kennedy helped cement his alignment with the Democratic Party.
Enyart won a full scholarship to the University of Illinois, but flunked out after a year. “There were girls, and I was having a good time,” he said in an interview. After he worked for a short period, the Vietnam War led him to enlist in the Air Force in 1969, and he was stationed at Scott Air Force Base in the 12th Congressional District. He left active duty in early 1973 and enrolled at Southern Illinois University (Edwardsville), where he studied political science and journalism. Having earned credits in the Air Force, he was able to graduate the following year.
For about a year, Enyart covered sports and police beats for the Belleville News-Democrat. But, he said, “I discovered that as a journalist, you didn’t really have a great impact on society.” That and the “poverty wages of a journalist” led him to enroll in SIU’s School of Law in 1976.
After graduating in 1979, Enyart ran a small-town general law practice before specializing in Social Security disability work. “I learned the frustration of dealing with federal bureaucracies,” he said. Specifically, Enyart saw how budget constraints and disregard for congressional intent could cause federal agencies to improperly carry out the law.
In 2000, he received a master’s degree in strategic studies from the Army War College, where he says he worked harder than he did in law school. The degree is a prerequisite for holding the rank of general, and in 2007, Enyart became adjutant general of the state National Guard (holding the rank of brigadier general). As adjutant general, he learned the ins and outs of the federal budgetary process, and in 2011, he directed the Guard’s response to a severe winter ice storm and to springtime flooding. He also directed a partnership with the Polish military that required regular travel to Poland.
Costello, who came to the House in 1993, decided not to run for reelection. Republican Jason Plummer, who had an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor under his belt, nabbed his party’s nomination. He was slated to run against Democratic primary winner Brad Harriman, an educator and football coach. But Harriman withdrew at the end of May, citing an aggravated neurological disorder. Democrats approached Enyart, and within days he retired from his National Guard post and put his name forward. A 14-member committee, which included Costello, unanimously selected Enyart to take Harriman’s place.
His race against Plummer was acrimonious. Enyart stressed the need to create jobs in the economically hard-hit 12th District and blasted Plummer for refusing to release his income-tax returns; the lumber heir said that publicly available disclosure forms were adequate. Plummer received more than $1 million in help from outside GOP groups and tried to tie his rival to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who remains unpopular with conservatives. The district’s support for Obama—who drew 56 percent of the 2008 vote there—gave Enyart a boost.
Ben Schreckinger contributed to this article.