Peoria Journal Star

May 19, 2004

Chambers' members rub elbows with high-profile speakers
Trip to D.C. helps central Illinoisans get better grasp of complex issues

of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Carol Shields of Pekin wasn't happy with former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay when he reported finding no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq earlier this year.

"I felt betrayed," said Shields, a real estate consultant who is a registered Republican.

But after Kay spoke to her and other central Illinois chamber of commerce members this week, Shields said the issue wasn't as black and white as she had understood from news reports at the time.

"You know the little snippets that you get on TV?" she asked. "Unfortunately, millions of people across America are making their minds up about a certain subject because of the way those are presented. After hearing from the person who actually made the speech, I'm finding a totally different side."

It's Shields' first time on the annual trip coordinated by U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, and five area chambers of commerce - Peoria, Springfield, Jacksonville, Quincy and Decatur. But others have returned numerous times to the nation's capital, a spring tradition started almost two decades ago by former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Peoria.

This year's group is the largest yet, with 120 participants.

The chambers invite their members, and LaHood and his staff line up an impressive array of high-profile speakers. In addition to Kay, the group also heard former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, who is a member of the bipartisan commission looking into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

After listening to Scalia's impassioned talk last year, Jim Roth of Springfield bought himself a copy of the U.S. Constitution. He still carries it in his briefcase.

LaHood promises the participants that they'll get a snapshot of what's going on in Washington from the people who are directly involved.

"What I've told people is that in Washington there are more than two opinions. There are many opinions. I think what they learn is the many points of view all of us are dealing with out here when we are debating issues and trying to make sense out of how to solve problems," LaHood said.

LaHood ensures they hear both Republicans and Democrats. While LaHood explained to the group how the House legislative process works, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., described the Senate process. Other Democratic speakers included Reps. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Rahm Emanuel, D-Chicago, a former Clinton White House aide.

On the Republican side, speakers included Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee.

"What it really does is give them a sense that there are hard-working, smart people in Washington who are trying to do their best stuff you can't really glean from a newspaper page or from a television camera," LaHood said.

On Monday night, the group went to a taping of "Crossfire" and attended a reception at the Colombian Embassy.

Richard Pearl, chief of pediatric surgery at The Children's Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, said the Washington trips also have shown him how highly regarded LaHood is by his fellow lawmakers.

"I'm a Democrat. He's a Republican. But I vote for him. He's a unique guy," Pearl said.

Despite the unusual access to some of Washington's most sought-after newsmakers, surveys after previous trips indicate that most participants say that making contacts with other Illinois businesspeople is the most valuable part of the trip.

"We didn't all know each other before. There's a lot of networking going on here," Pearl said.