Peoria Journal Star

April 2, 2006

Evans leaving legacy as defender
Illinois lawmaker known as advocate for unions, working-class citizens

By Dori Meinert
OF Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - For several years after he first came to Congress in 1983, Rep. Lane Evans would spend every Wednesday evening at his desk in his congressional office personally returning constituents' phone calls.

"I was blown away because Lane was taking notes. And, he was nodding his head ... you could tell he was really listening," said Eda Robinson, recalling one of her earliest memories of working for Evans.

"It was so refreshing to see somebody who is a member of Congress who was really trying to represent the people," said Robinson, who has spent 22 years as Evans' office manager.

That personal touch was a hallmark of the then-newly minted congressman, a former Marine and legal aid lawyer with no prior political experience who had defied the odds to become the first Democrat to represent Illinois' 17th Congressional District in 16 years.

He was, in fact, the quintessential citizen legislator, so when Evans arrived on Capitol Hill it was if life were imitating art - Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

When he bows out at year's end after 24 years representing his central Illinois House district, he will leave with a national reputation as a leading advocate for veterans and ordinary Americans and as an inspiration for others who, like him, suffer from Parkinson's disease.

He also leaves Republicans wondering whether they might be able to pull off a coup similar to Evans' feat in 1982, when he won the seat after a longtime moderate Republican incumbent, Rep. Tom Railsback, was unexpectedly defeated in the primary.

As the region struggled through an economic recession, Evans defeated conservative Republican state Sen. Kenneth McMillan, by urging voters to "send Reagan a message."

Dennis King, his chief of staff throughout Evans' tenure, described Evans as a populist since his first days in office. He immediately devised outreach programs to bring his services as a congressman to the people he represents, King said. He held meetings in each county to pinpoint local economic needs in an era when economic development agencies didn't yet exist.

Courage and conviction

Evans arrived on Capitol Hill with a huge group of 57 newly elected House Democrats. In two of his first four years in the House, Evans voted more often against the policies of then-President Ronald Reagan than any other House member.

"From the start, he really stood out in my mind because he started casting some of the most politically courageous votes. This was a district that a few weeks before was represented by a Republican," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was elected to the House the same year and counts Evans as a close friend. "I admired him for his courage. Most freshman congressmen don't have that courage to stand up and vote that way. They tend to be more cautious and careful, but that just wasn't his style."

Evans' voting record remains solidly liberal and pro-union to this day.

Ultimately, he became a leading defender of veterans' rights and benefits in Congress.

In 1997, Evans became the senior Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee - the first Vietnam-era veteran to achieve that status. He also sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

"He's been a champion for veterans, and he's going to be sorely missed," said Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, who has worked with Evans on numerous veteran-related issues.

Evans served as a Marine during the Vietnam era. His older brother was already serving in Vietnam, so Evans was sent to Okinawa. Their father had served in the Navy. Evans returned home to go to college on the GI bill.

In his first two-year term, he won legislation to create a pilot program establishing community-based veterans centers to help with job and marriage counseling and post-traumatic stress syndrome. The program has since grown to include hundreds of veterans centers around the country.

He also succeeded after a four-year fight to win medical compensation for Vietnam veterans exposed to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. In 1996, Evans also pushed through a measure extending benefits to the veterans' children who were born with spina bifida, a spinal birth defect. It was the first time the government agreed to compensate veterans' children for health problems related to their parents' military service.

He's also pushed for disclosure of health risks to Gulf War veterans. His agenda has also included expanded services for women GIs and for those who become homeless once they leave military ranks.

His has been a leading voice in the effort to ban the use of anti-personnel land mines, which pose a danger to soldiers and civilians alike. And, he's pressed Japan to apologize for sexually abusing Asian "comfort women" during World War II.

Personal heroes

A huge Beatles fan, Evans has a large John Lennon photo displayed prominently in his congressional office.

It hangs there "because he thought John Lennon was often a better reminder than many people he met in Congress of the hopes of working-class young people for peace and freedom," said Durbin, in a tribute to Evans on the Senate floor this past week.

On the opposite wall, Evans has surrounded himself with photos and posters of his other personal heroes, including John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. Among them, he also has a photo of Canton teenager John Keets, who died of AIDS.

In 1995, Evans was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease after he noticed he had trouble waving his left hand during a Labor Day parade in Galesburg. He waited three years to announce it publicly, fearing it would hurt him politically.

Although he had supported increasing research funds for the disease even before his symptoms surfaced, he stepped up his advocacy.

His close friend Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, recalls how Evans last year approached him on the House floor and asked him to vote to lift President Bush's ban on federal funding for research using embryonic stem cells. Ortiz, who like many anti-abortion lawmakers had supported such a ban, was persuaded by Evans' personal plight to change his position.

"I deviated from my regular voting because I was so sad to see his health deteriorate so fast," Ortiz said. "You don't want to see a man like that suffer. I just hope that some day we'll discover something that will help my good friend."

'Grace under pressure'

Back home in Illinois, Evans also has appeared at fund-raisers for Parkinson's disease research and inspired constituents, who also suffer from the disease.

"He has shown me ... not so much by his speaking but by his actions that Parkinson's disease can be a life sentence and not a death sentence. He has shown me how it is to deal with grace under pressure," said Joan Blessington Snyder, 54, of Chillicothe.

She and Evans became friends after they discovered they were the same age, at similar stages of the disease and using the same medicines.

Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological disease that causes tremors, muscle stiffness, speech and balance problems, but doesn't affect mental capacity.

Evans was hospitalized briefly in February for severe fatigue, probably brought on by over-exerting himself on a weeklong congressional trip to South Korea in January, said King, his chief of staff. At his doctor's suggestion, Evans has been resting at his home or at a friend's home without medical supervision, King said.

Evans announced his decision to retire at the end of this year after it was reported that he hadn't voted on the House floor since Feb. 14. His announcement set off a flurry of speculation about his successor and about Democrats' ability to retain the House seat. Democrats must decide by Aug. 31 who will replace Evans on the ballot. Evans has endorsed his longtime district director Phil Hare.

Bill Burton, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has said that Republicans shouldn't bother spending money in the district. Republican candidate Andrea Zinga, who lost to Evans in 2004, has just $3,600 left after a three-way primary fight. But Republicans see an opportunity there.

"The Illinois 17th congressional district is a swing district that is trending Republican," said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for National Republican Congressional Committee. Collegio noted that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry carried the district by just three percentage points in 2004.

"The Republican candidate has strong name ID. She's run in the district before. She's an Emmy-winning television journalist. And, if she puts the money together with a strong campaign team, she could turn Illinois 17th into one of the most competitive districts in the country," Collegio said.

Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or dori.meinert@copleydc.com.