Springfield State Journal 

Fitzgerald will retire with record of reform

December 17, 2004


WASHINGTON - Cardboard boxes line the halls of Sen. Peter Fitzgerald's Senate office suite. About a third of his staff have new jobs; the rest still are searching.

Fitzgerald, R-Ill., cast his last Senate vote - on intelligence reform - on Wednesday.

In less than a month, he will end his six years as a U.S. senator and return to private life. He said he doesn't regret his decision to retire after a single term.

"I've loved it. It's been a wonderful opportunity. But there certainly is a downside in terms of what it does to your family," said Fitzgerald, who opted not to seek re-election so he could spend more time with his wife and 12-year-old son.

During his U.S. Senate tenure, Fitzgerald cemented his reputation as a maverick and a reformer that began in the Illinois Senate. He said he hopes to be remembered as someone who stood up for taxpayers and against pork-barrel politics.

One of his favorite mementos is a poster of Frank Capra's movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," that hangs in his office hallway. It was given to him last year by Taxpayers for Common Sense, an advocacy group, for resisting the influence of special interests and working to reduce wasteful government spending.

However, some might say Fitzgerald was as naive as the movie character played by Jimmy Stewart, who also tried to buck the system.

Fitzgerald alienated himself from most other Illinois Republicans on Capitol Hill, most notably House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Fitzgerald crossed Hastert in October 2000 when he delayed Senate passage of a spending bill to push for competitive bidding on contracts for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Hastert accused him of "political grandstanding."

A few months later, he again angered Hastert and other Illinois lawmakers by refusing to sign a "wish list" of Illinois projects they hoped President-elect George Bush would agree to fund.

But the harshest disagreement came over his refusal to give Hastert a say in the appointment of U.S. attorneys, a perk that traditionally goes to a state's senior senator of the same party as the White House. One of Sen. Fitzgerald's picks was New Yorker Patrick Fitzgerald, who is not related, who has led the investigations into corruption within former Gov. George Ryan's administration.

"My legacy, I believe, will be that I did everything in the power of one man to fight a sordid political culture in Illinois," Fitzgerald said.

Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, was so angered by Fitzgerald's actions that he told reporters in late 2002 that he was considering urging others to run against him. He criticized Fitzgerald's go-it-alone style, telling one Capitol Hill newspaper that "loners and independents very seldom get anything done."

In response to his colleagues' charges that he has not been a team player, Fitzgerald retorts: "I always look at what the team is doing."

"If the team is opposed to competitive bidding, then no, I'm not with them. If the team wants to put a political operative in the U.S. attorney's office, then I'm not with them. But if the team is for competitive bidding and for integrity in government, I'm happy to be a part of it," Fitzgerald said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., described his working relationship with Fitzgerald as "friendly."

Together, they hosted weekly breakfasts for visiting Illinois constituents and cooperated on the selection of federal judges. But their relationship was strained, too, over the tactics Fitzgerald used to fight proposed expansion of O'Hare International Airport.

"There were times when it was better than other times," Durbin acknowledged. "But by and large, it was very productive and we tried our best to work together."

Although Fitzgerald is a conservative on issues such as tax cuts and abortion, he sometimes sided with Democrats. For example, he favored background checks for gun purchases, more patients' rights in dealing with their HMOs and a ban on oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

He cast the only vote in the Senate against a bailout of the airline industry after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

When he was elected in 1998, spending more than $14 million of his own money to become the Senate's youngest member at age 38, the multimillionaire from the Chicago suburbs surprised Illinois farm groups by seeking a seat on the Agriculture Committee - the first Illinois senator to do so since 1986.

While they differed on some issues such as subsidy caps, Fitzgerald always made farmers feel their opinions mattered, said Chuck Spencer, the Illinois Farm Bureau's national legislative director.

Fitzgerald was named a "friend" of the American Farm Bureau each year he was in office, for voting more than 60 percent of the time in support of farm bureau positions.

Using his banking expertise, Fitzgerald played a leading role in the congressional inquiry into the Enron Corp. scandal. He also highlighted abuses by the mutual fund industry, problems in the so-called "529" college savings plans and conflicts of interest in the insurance industry. In its December issue, Money Magazine said individual investors will lose "one of their feistiest defenders" when Fitzgerald leaves the Senate.

On consumer issues, he won legislation encouraging the use and study of child car seats and toddler booster seats.

He boasts that he's never taken a federally funded foreign trip or one paid by outside special interests.

In 2022, Fitzgerald will collect a federal pension of $14,200 a year, according to estimates by the National Taxpayers Union.

After he leaves the Senate, Fitzgerald said he wants to go back into private business, as a director of or investor in several companies. He hasn't decided whether he'll stay in the Washington area or return to Illinois.

In a move that may worry some on Capitol Hill, he said he's contemplating writing a book on "how Congress really works."

"I've had everything from a couple of book offers to a variety of corporate offers," he said. "There are so many opportunities out there, and it's such a new phase in my life, that I want to take plenty of time to think about it."