Illinois: Fourteenth District|
Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R)
Last Updated June 1, 1999
A few dozen miles beyond the Loop there is an invisible line marking two different Chicagos. One is the Chicago dominated by blacks and descendants of the vast immigrations of 1840-1924 and 1970-90, a Chicago where certain loyalties are taken for granted: loyalty to ethnic group, to church (usually the Catholic Church, often with an ethnic prefix), and to party (almost always the Democrats). This Chicago is a gritty city, where personal cheerfulness and courtesy lighten up days otherwise as cold and impersonal as the gray winter sky. The other Chicago is the beginning of the Great Plains, originally a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Chicago, a place whose residents are products of the first great wave of immigration to America. The tone of this Chicago is lighter, its streets and highways cleaner and neater, its daily life generally free from evidence of unpleasantness and deprivation. People in this Chicago think of themselves as typical Americans, and their geographical vision takes in the vast plains. Ronald Reagan grew up in Downstate Illinois within the orbit of this Chicago (though he did live in the city briefly), and its spirit helped to characterize his presidency. His migration to southern California, incidentally, is not atypical: you can see in the geometric grids and Republican voting patterns of Orange County or Phoenix almost exact replicas of the grids and patterns in Chicago's suburban ''Collar Counties,'' transported to the once-empty Southwest on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe or out the old U.S. 66 from their beginnings in Chicago's Loop.
The 14th Congressional District straddles this line between metropolitan Chicago and Downstate Illinois. It gets as close as 30 miles to Chicago's Loop, in western DuPage County, with two great Chicagoland landmarks--Cantigny, the estate of Colonel Robert McCormick, longtime publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and FermiLab, the world's fastest energy particle accelerator and employer of some 2,000 people-- icons of political conservatism and high technology within two miles of each other. The 14th also contains the Fox River Valley, and its industrial cities of Elgin and Aurora (the home of Garth and Wayne in Wayne's World), and antique St. Charles in the heart of the Collar Counties. Farther west, amid what may be the world's richest cornfields, the 14th passes through DeKalb, long the world's leading manufacturer of barbed wire, and goes on to Kendall and Lee counties, including Reagan's boyhood home in Dixon. This is some of the most heavily Republican territory in the country. Northern Illinois was settled, when Chicago was just a frontier village, by Yankees from Ohio, Indiana, Upstate New York and New England, and by Germans emigrating after the failed revolutions of 1848: people who formed the heart of the Republican Party from its founding in 1854, and who would form the core of the Grand Army of the Republic a few years later. Their descendants, in this extension of Chicagoland, remain solidly Republican today.
The congressman from the 14th is Dennis Hastert, a Republican first elected in 1986, and today the 51st man to become speaker of the House. Like many congressmen from high-income districts he comes from a modest background. He grew up on a farm; his father had a feed supply business, and Denny and his brothers hoisted 100-pound bags and delivered milk in the early morning. At high school in Oswego--then a rural town, now exploding with subdivisions--he wrestled and played football; after graduating from Wheaton College, he became a high school teacher at Yorkville High School, a rural town a few miles farther from Chicago. There he taught history and coached wrestling for 16 years. But his experience was not as limited as that description may suggest. In summers he traveled as a teacher for the YMCA or other groups to Japan, Columbia, Venezuela, Europe and the Soviet Union. ''Almost every summer before I got married, I was in Japan or Europe or South America. I'd take slides and bring that experience back to the classroom.'' And as a wrestling coach he excelled: He took his teams to training camps and tournaments in other states to learn new holds; his team won the state championship and he was named the national coach of the year in 1976.
After a trip to Washington in 1978, when Democrats had a 2-1 majority in the House, he got involved in politics, interning with state Senator John Grotberg. In 1980 he finished third in an Illinois House primary, then the incumbent became fatally ill and Hastert was chosen to take his place on the November ballot. In the Illinois House he sat next to Tom Ewing, now congressman from the 15th District; the speaker was George Ryan, now governor of Illinois. After the March 1986 primary, Grotberg, now a member of Congress, was fatally stricken with cancer and Hastert again was chosen by the party as a replacement. The election was unusually close, but Hastert won 52%-48%.
In the House, Hastert had a conservative voting record and made few waves. But he gained valuable experience. He got a seat on the Commerce Committee and on the subcommittees handling health, energy and telecommunications issues. He built a relationship with Minority Leader Robert Michel, from Illinois's 18th District. He worked together with Tom DeLay of Texas for Ed Madigan in the race for minority whip in March 1989; Madigan lost by just two votes to an upstart from Georgia named Newt Gingrich. In the 1992 campaign he and Bill Emerson of Missouri worked hard for the House Republicans' campaign committee. In 1994 he was chief organizer for Tom DeLay's campaign for whip, the one leadership post won by a non-Gingrichite after the big Republican gains that fall. Afterwards, Hastert was named chief deputy whip and shared an office and staff with DeLay.
To his work Hastert brought the habits of a coach, listening long to colleagues' goals and complaints, sizing up their character and capacity, then insisting firmly on a course of action when he reached a judgment. He operated with minimal ego and a bear-like friendliness, putting his arm around a colleague when asking advice or seeking intelligence; increasingly he was looked to by other leaders to help Republicans reach consensus and to negotiate difficult issues with Democrats, particularly health care. In 1993 he was on a Republican task force responding to Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care plan. In 1996 he worked on the portability bill passed by both houses of Congress; it included removal of preexisting conditions, allowed small businesses to use pools to buy insurance, created medical savings accounts, increased on a sliding scale tax deductibility of health insurance for the self-employed and reformed malpractice laws. In 1997 he helped put together the Republicans' Medicare bill. Gingrich made him head of a task force that hammered out a patients' rights bill. This was delicate stuff: He worked with Charlie Norwood, who wanted patients to have the right to sue HMOs, and Bill Thomas, who was strongly against it. The Republican bill, passed by the House in August 1998, did not include the right to sue, but did include a ban on the gag rule, permitted emergency room visits without previous approval, and allowed patients to appeal decisions to an arbitrator.
Hastert was active in negotiations on the 1996 telecommunications bill and on repealing the Social Security ''earnings tax''--the deduction of benefits among senior citizens who earn over a certain figure--in the 1995 Contract With America. Gingrich made him the Republicans' lead negotiator on the 2000 Census in 1997. He strongly opposed the Clinton Administration plan for census sampling, which he said would be open to fraud and abuse, and argued that the Constitution required an ''enumeration'' which could only be done by head-count. He eventually moved the issue to a new subcommittee headed by Dan Miller of Florida and held to a hard line against Democrats and the Clinton Administration. Over the years, Hastert has continued his trips abroad, including to Japan, and has been supportive of free trade; central Illinois, where the largest company is Caterpillar, produces more exports than just about anywhere else in the country. He tended to support the regional Bells on telecom issues and favored encryption controls on the Internet. He has helped get funding for FermiLab and Argonne National Laboratory, and in 1998 got $250,000 in the defense budget for ''pharmacokinetics research,'' which turned out to be a study of caffeinated chewing gum by Amurol Confections Company of Yorkville.
Until December 1998, Hastert, well known in the House, was almost unknown to the general public. Then, three days after Republicans lost five seats in the November elections, Speaker Newt Gingrich announced his retirement. Challenges loomed against everyone in the leadership, with the conspicuous exception of DeLay. Many members urged Hastert to run against Majority Leader Dick Armey. But Hastert had pledged to support him; when he asked to be released from the pledge, Armey said no; and so he stuck to it and didn't run for a position he could probably have won. This behavior, unusual among Republican leaders who had been targeting each other for more than a year, was recalled on December 19, when just before the impeachment vote Speaker-designate Bob Livingston announced his retirement too. Gingrich told Hastert, ''You are the only one in this conference who could pull this body together. You are going to have to be the next speaker of the House.'' At one 1 p.m. he announced; by the end of the day he had more than 100 votes, and the speakership.
In his opening speech January 6, Hastert made a point of walking down from the podium and speaking from the well of the House. ''My legislative home is here on the floor with you, and so is my heart.'' He invoked the spirit of bipartisanship so widely longed for, but with an edge: ''To my Democratic colleagues, I say I will meet you halfway, maybe more so on occasion. But cooperation is a two-way street, and I expect you to meet me halfway, too.'' He invoked his authority as a coach: ''Everyone on the squad has something to offer. You never get to the finals without a well-rounded team. Above all, a coach worth his salt will instill in his team a sense of fair play, camaraderie, respect for the game and for the opposition. … It it is work, not talk, that wins championships.'' As speaker, he seems more likely to defer to committee chairmen and more eager to meet appropriations deadlines than Gingrich, who passed over seniority to create his own chairmen in 1994 and often created task forces to make end runs around them. At the same time, Hastert did not offer the kind of deference to appropriators that Livingston had demanded in November as Gingrich and, as a regular commuter home to Yorkville (where his wife still teaches school) every weekend, he rejected Livingston's proposal of a five-day work week. He told the Chicago Sun-Times, ''I was never a Newt Gingrich. I wasn't very articulate and philosophical and a visionary that certainly Gingrich was. … My strong point is I can really identify problems and work through the process to solve the problems.'' In place of the dinosaur skeleton Gingrich put in the Speaker's office, he installed a ship captain's bell.
Many Democrats saw Hastert as an interim speaker, serving only until what they considered their inevitable victory in the House elections of 2000. Republicans hoped that he could produce solid enough achievements to commend their majority to pro-incumbent voters. Despite his unwillingness to give the wide-ranging overviews Gingrich loved, Hastert seemed in early months to have something of a strategy. Noting the importance of education, the House and Senate passed ''EdFlex'' bills, block-granting dollars to the states, a proposal supported by all 50 governors. As Hastert said in his opening speech, ''In my 16 years as a teacher, I learned that most of the decisions having to do with education are best left to the people closest to the situation: parents, teachers and school board members. What should the federal government's role be? It should be to see that as many education dollars as possible go directly to the classrooms, where they will do the most good.'' Republicans invited Bill Clinton to propose specific Social Security and Medicare reforms--invitations he seemed determined to spurn. And they targeted defense and foreign policy. They moved quickly to pass a bipartisan missile defense bill. And on Kosovo, Hastert insisted on a debate over a resolution supporting the deployment of U.S. troops, with an open rule for amendments barring or limiting it. He said that he started off neutral, but weighed in quietly in support of the authorization, but with requirements that the administration specify objectives and means: an assertion of congressional authority that had been allowed to lapse and the basis for a critique of administration policy if things turn sour. It was not a bad start for a leader with a 223-212 majority, and it may be a sign that this former wrestling coach, who drives a pickup truck and carves duck decoys on the weekend, was being underestimated in early 1999 as he had been in the past.
Safe. Speaker of the House Hastert will have no trouble winning his eighth election in this Republican district.
- Pop. 1990: 571,540
- 21% rural;
9.6% age 65+;
- 88.9% White,
0.2% Amer. Indian,
9.5% Hispanic origin;
63.6% married couple families;
34.8% married couple fams. w. children;
50.3% college educ.;
median household income: $39,815;
per capita income: $15,769;
median gross rent: $412;
median house value: $100,600.
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