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Hidden Agendas 

Al Salvi and Dick Durbin: Their records speak louder than their words.

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By Harold Henderson

OK, nonvoters, maybe you have a point. Bob Dole is a frown in search of a program; Bill Clinton is a Republican in drag. But in Illinois you're going to need a better excuse for staying home November 5. If any election can make a difference, it's the race to succeed retiring U.S. senator Paul Simon. Congressman Dick Durbin, a downstate Democrat, and state representative Al Salvi, a northwest suburban Republican, aren't even close to agreeing on taxes, school choice, reproductive choice, balancing the budget, controlling guns, saving social security, the continued existence of the departments of Education and Commerce, and the continued federal subsidizing of major corporations' overseas ad campaigns, for starters.

This fall Salvi and Durbin are nimbly dancing toward the political center, where the undecided voters are. Don't be deceived. They may be slapping a new coat of varnish on their beliefs, but both men are still considerably more principled than the average politician. In the past their principles have sometimes pulled them toward the center, sometimes away from the center toward heroic or quixotic positions that they now prefer not to bring up. Neither candidate is in the class of such famous trimmers as former senator Alan Dixon or former governor James Thompson. If you really liked those guys, this race is going to be a tough call.

There are several ways you could make that call. You could judge Durbin and Salvi by their TV campaign commercials--but the ads' pompous dishonesty is boring and unworthy of the intelligent and personable candidates themselves. You could judge them by what they've said in recent debates and interviews--a better yardstick, but a rubbery one, since both men are good at saying what they think we want to hear. Best of all, you could judge them by their deeds--because whoever wins will probably make the same kind of laws in the U.S. Senate that he made in his previous job.

Salvi's Crusade

Al Salvi, a trial lawyer by trade, has represented western Lake County in the Illinois house since 1993. His 52nd District is so Republican it gave Jim Edgar a four-to-one margin over Dawn Clark Netsch in the 1994 governor's race; in 1992 Bill Clinton could garner only 28 percent of the vote there, barely more than Ross Perot.

Salvi gave up a probable lifetime sinecure in the state legislature to make a long-shot primary run ("My wife and I figured it was a 100-to-1 shot") against Lieutenant Governor Bob Kustra and then against Durbin, anointed successor to the ever-popular Paul Simon. Why?

Two reasons, says Salvi. First, "I think this country is headed in the wrong direction. We're destroying the free-market economic system that's created more wealth for more people than any other in the world. Second, Dan Quayle wrote in his book that in Washington he had dinner every night at 6:30 with his family. In Springfield [far from Salvi's home near Wauconda] you might as well be in Timbuktu. That settled it for me."

When Salvi first announced his candidacy he was more blunt about his reasons. "The time is now to pass the Contract With America," he told supporters on September 29, 1995. "Republicans in the House of Representatives have done well in getting the ball rolling. . . . [But they] must be able to rely on the Senate. That is why I want to be your next United States senator.

"I am not a go-along, get-along politician. The fundamental question that I ask myself before every vote in the Illinois legislature and that I will ask myself before every vote in the Senate is, "Will this vote create more of a burden on our taxpayers?' . . . I am not a politician who holds my finger in the wind to decide how I'll vote. Today the winds are blowing in our direction, but when they change--and they will change--I will still be standing there fighting for less government."

The Union League Club is no place for casual dressers, nor for lovers of sunlight on a spectacular fall day. Heavily carpeted, dimly lit, well insulated from city noises, it seems a congenial habitat for suit-and-tie Republicans.

After Salvi's speech there this past September 24, one member asked him what he thought of President Clinton's designating 1.7 million acres of Utah as a national monument. "It sounds like a good idea," replied the candidate. "Set an ecologically sensitive area aside to protect it from mining." For a couple of heartbeats, the well-muffled dining room got very quiet indeed; then it was on to the next question.

Salvi's statement may have surprised the Union League clubbers, but not Lynne Padovan, director of legislation for the Illinois Environmental Council, a 21-year-old nonpartisan coalition of more than 70 state environmental organizations. "He's a maverick," she says. Before it became fashionable for Republicans to seek cover under the environmentalist label, Salvi was voting like one--a case in which his principles pulled him toward the center. When the IEC and consumer groups worked (successfully) to repeal the state's "retail rate law" that subsidized garbage incinerators, "he never wavered in his support of our position, no matter what the party line was." Salvi was one of the lawmakers to whom IEC gave a postvictory mug reading "Friend of the Environment."

On the issue of how to pay for cleaning up contaminated industrial sites, which IEC lost, Padovan recalls Salvi being equally helpful and consistent, though business logic might well have put him on the other side. "Our problem was that the bill's funding mechanisms did away with joint and several liability," Padovan recalls, "thus sticking taxpayers with most of the bill. It also raided the already inadequate Solid Waste Management Fund. It was snake oil by business and industry. Their lobbying effort was unprecedented--a disgusting, despicable display of raw political power. Al was with us all the way. When we get the IEC voting records compiled for the session, I know he's going to be up around the 70th percentile."

One Springfield lobbyist who doesn't share Padovan's good opinion of Salvi is Jim Collins of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. Collins accuses Salvi not of having the wrong position on ITLA's issues, but of something arguably worse in a politician--betrayal. Salvi led six dissenting Republicans when his party's legislative leadership rolled out its agenda on tort reform in early 1995. Many of the proposed reforms would have reduced trial lawyers' income by limiting what their clients could recover in court if injured or killed by defective products; Salvi himself earned a seven-figure income from his own practice (he's now being dogged by questions about the legality of the use of that income in his primary campaign, and about the fund-raising he did among trial lawyers during the tort-reform debate), but he had reasons of principle to oppose the reforms as well.

The convoluted legislative battle pitted the (usually Democratic) trial lawyers against (usually Republican) businesses. When the pressure got too great the dissenters buckled; Salvi was the only one who didn't vote for the major tort-reform bill that passed. (It has since fared poorly in court tests.) To Collins and consumer advocates, Salvi was something of a hero in a losing cause. But that was before he beat Kustra. "As soon as he won the primary he changed his position," says Collins. Salvi now says he would vote for a proposed federal tort-reform bill. "It's amazing to me," says Collins, "that someone who has represented injured persons, someone who knows firsthand what it's like to fight for their rights in the courtroom against the big corporations, could turn around and do this. In my mind his ambition took over. He supports the federal bill now because he has to raise money."

Salvi says he didn't change his mind, that the state and federal bills are different. He says the state bill was unfair when it tied the cap on damages to the economic losses suffered, so that a housewife, for instance, could recover far less than a high-powered executive for the same pain and suffering. The federal bill also limits punitive damages, he says, but ties that cap to overall losses, not just economic ones.

Collins scoffs at this as after-the-fact hairsplitting. "He was saying no caps, period--not the wrong kind of caps." State representative Robert Churchill also recalls that even as Salvi moderated his original position during the debate he remained "adamantly opposed" to caps. But other participants in the fight support Salvi's account. "He was not a categorical opponent of tort reform," says state representative Cal Skinner Jr., a Salvi backer even in the primary. "He said changes needed to be made, but this went too far. And I'm not sure it was to his political advantage. The manufacturers also feel jilted because Al didn't vote for tort reform; their support for him [now] is not uniform. He's managed to alienate one side and not make as firm friends as might be expected with the other." A former Republican legislative staffer agrees: "Al was looking for a way to do something different, a way to do something everybody could live with, so he got beat up by all sides."

If there's anything worse for a politician than being accused of going back on his word, it's being accused of harboring a hidden agenda. "Most Illinois voters don't comprehend the extent to which [Salvi] wishes to make his own religious beliefs public policy," says state representative Jeff Schoenberg. An even less friendly legislative colleague says, "A lot of things he's done are right off the list of bills put out by the right for them to sponsor." Here are two expressions of principle that show Salvi well to the right of center:

The American Heritage Act--known to its opponents as the "Bible Bill." Salvi sponsored it in 1994, and state representative Peter Roskam, a law partner, sponsored it after that. It's been promoted by the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation in Washington, D.C. (evidently an exception to Salvi's pledge to "bring Illinois values to Washington, not the other way around"). As debated in the General Assembly, the bill provides that teachers and administrators shall not be kept from using, reading from, or posting the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and seven other "historically significant or venerated documents," as well as other documents not listed.

Are there really schools where the Declaration of Independence is kept in a locked drawer along with The Joy of Sex and Huckleberry Finn? It's hard to imagine, but in floor debate on June 2, 1994, Salvi described the bill as "desperately needed." He said, "In schools throughout the state there is an irrational fear that . . . there is something wrong with . . . utilizing some of these documents . . . especially if there is . . . some sort of use of the word God, for example. What we're trying to do here is simply say there is nothing wrong with that. . . . If something in here can be interpreted as saying we could teach the Bible, that is a misinterpretation of this [bill]."

According to FCREF, teachers have been confused by textbooks that excise mentions of God from historical documents and therefore understate the importance of religious belief in U.S. history. Even though no law forbids using those documents, even though no specific teacher's complaints were brought up during several debates stretching over two legislative sessions, and even though Clinton's Department of Education has clearly stated that teaching about religion as part of history is OK and trying to convert students isn't, Salvi and others still felt the bill was needed.

State representative Jan Schakowsky and other civil libertarians disagreed. "The way it's phrased, it's a stealth bill," said Schakowsky in debate earlier this year, "promoted by certain organizations whose interest it is to inject religion in public schools. I oppose that." (Salvi and Roskam repeatedly and emphatically denied that this was their intention.) The bill as written also seemed to imply that only a lawsuit could restrain a teacher who misused its authority and did preach religion.

In the end the bill passed, but Governor Edgar amendatorily vetoed it. (An Illinois governor has the option of imposing an "amendatory veto" on a bill passed by the General Assembly--that is, changing its language and returning it to the legislators for approval.) Edgar added language so that the law couldn't be construed as infringing on constitutional guarantees separating church and state, nor as limiting the power of administrators or school boards--ensuring that the bill would be as innocuous as Salvi had insisted it was all along. So why didn't Salvi or Roskam short-circuit the whole argument by amending the bill themselves? "In retrospect," says Salvi, "we probably should have."

The Parental Rights Amendment to the state constitution, part of a multistate crusade sponsored by Of the People, a right-wing think tank based in Arlington, Virginia. (Before the primary election Salvi's campaign biography touted his support of the constitutional amendment. The biography now available on his campaign web site [www.salvi96.org] does not.) "It's very simple," Salvi says. "It just says that the right of parents to bring up their children shall not be infringed." Are parents' rights being infringed now? "I think so," he says. "One of my constituents complained to me that their very young children in grade school were shown Schindler's List. The parents felt that although it was a good movie it was inappropriate for their children's ages. They asked the school to tell them ahead of time about such showings in the future. The school district said, "No. We're in charge of them when they're at school; you're in charge when they're at home."'

If frequent, such incidents might well make a case for a new law or even a constitutional amendment. But Salvi won't name the school or the parents, saying, "I don't want to get them into trouble." Officials of the Illinois Association of School Boards (which opposed the amendment in the General Assembly) express deep skepticism about the story. "I've represented school districts for 17 years," says Melinda Selbee, IASB's general counsel. "In 1982 I would have said, "Hey, it could be.' In 1996, fortunately, we're beyond that. Such a response from a school district would be very unusual. A typical response would be, "We're glad to hear from you, we regret that you feel this way, we want to work with you.' Especially with something as controversial as an R-rated movie, I would be stunned if there were no options given beforehand. Every single conference and every single educational magazine emphasizes how to get parents involved in the school--not turn them away."

Peter Weber, IASB deputy executive director, uses stronger language. "This is very unlikely. Most teachers and administrators view raising children as a team effort. They're hungry for the involvement of parents." If it did happen, "It's an aberration and it ought to be rectified."

Both the American Heritage Act and the Parental Rights Amendment follow a characteristic pattern of up-to-date right-wing organizing: they derive from a central source in the name of decentralization; they make marvelous sound bites (indeed are almost impossible to argue against); they're supported by vague, unverifiable anecdotes; and they're drafted ambiguously enough that they could well cause schools and government agencies to be paralyzed by litigation.

If you ask Salvi or his friends about his legislative record, one of the first bills they mention is his "transracial adoption bill," which allows adoption across racial lines and became law a year ago as HB 1221. "Al was almost obsessive in trying to reach agreement with [state representative] Mary Flowers on that bill," recalls Representative Cal Skinner. "He made compromises I wouldn't have made. He didn't need her vote to pass the bill, but he made efforts to reach out to black members of the General Assembly. What you see Jack Kemp doing, Al has done and will do."

But Flowers, who represents a south-side district that's almost as Democratic as Salvi's is Republican, recalls the episode differently. "I told Mr. Salvi, "I'm interested in babies in need of homes. This is your adult feel-good bill."' In a Republican-controlled legislature her own bills had no chance of moving, so she wanted to add a provision to Salvi's that would require the state Department of Children and Family Services to follow a specific "placement-preference schedule" for children being separated from their birth parents. Caseworkers were to look first to relatives, then to the community, then to anyone willing to adopt. "We went back and forth, and when I told him I would leave no stone unturned in what I would say on the floor, then he agreed to accept my amendment." The bill passed, but then turned out to violate some federal regulations. Flowers says she spent much of the summer of 1995 "going between Springfield and Washington putting the bill in compliance." Then on August 11 Governor Edgar removed most of her language, including the placement-preference schedule, in an amendatory veto. "It was back to [Salvi's] original language."

At that point, she says, "Basically Al Salvi was not very helpful. He could have refused to accept the amendatory veto. To me that would have been the right thing to do, but he said he had to go with it. I ended up voting against the bill. And there are now more children waiting in the system, a year after Al Salvi's bill became law. There were 50,000--now there are 59,000."

Durbin's Defense

"Every time I hear an Al Salvi ad I consider it an ad for Dick Durbin," one woman explained when Durbin visited an October 5 meeting of the disabled-rights group Justice for All on the near west side. "They call him a "tax-and-spend liberal.' I say to myself, "That's great. That's the kind of man I'm going to vote for--a man who will tax those people with more money in order to help those who need services."' Robert Creamer of Citizen Action of Illinois, the state's largest progressive public-interest organization, says, "The more I know him, the better I like him. As a senator I think he'll be spectacular. This is a guy who will have the right position in a heartbeat and who can frame the issues well so that he has followers too."

Durbin might like to qualify these testimonials, because--unlike his favorite positions, against assault weapons and against tobacco--they make him look more liberal and less centrist. But such testimonials do reflect his record. Besides Paul Simon, his political heroes include past liberal stalwarts such as Tip O'Neill, the white-maned House speaker who went up against Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and Paul Douglas, for whom the 21-year-old Durbin worked in 1965 and '66.

Told that Salvi's running for the Senate to protect the free enterprise system, Durbin chuckles. "Under the free enterprise system Al Salvi boasts about we'd still have a minimum wage of 50 cents an hour. I believe government does have a responsibility to create opportunities--student loans--to protect people from excesses of the free enterprise system, to preserve national assets like clean air and water, and to help the helpless with a basic safety net. The Democratic Party has changed on the issue of the size of government and is becoming more efficient."

This year Durbin is running as a careful spender. "I've made the tough choices we have to make to cut spending and reduce the deficit," he told Chicago Life earlier this year. According to his campaign web site (www.durbin96.org), he has "consistently supported efforts to reduce the federal deficit in fair and rational ways." But if fiscal prudence was a real priority of his in Congress, the record doesn't show it.

One of Paul Simon's and Carol Moseley-Braun's few concessions to conservative sentiment has been their support of the Balanced Budget Amendment. Durbin has regularly voted against it. He supports a less well-known version that would protect the social security trust fund from being "raided" to reduce the deficit. Some observers describe this version as a way to pay lip service to an amendment without having to pass one. And when pressed, Durbin acknowledges, "I'm not a wild disciple of this amendment. We need to maintain our flexibility--when you embed the balanced budget in the Constitution you turn the budgeting process over to federal judges." However, the amendment Durbin voted against already contains provisions that allow Congress to override the balanced-budget requirement.

"I know how to cut waste," Durbin said during his downstate debate with Salvi on September 28. "When I was chairman of the appropriations subcommittee [on agriculture, in 1994] we cut $1.3 billion in spending in one year, the biggest single cut on that committee in its history." He says he did away with several programs--including ones that measured the flow of catsup, studied the length of pickle stems, and published the little-read agriculture yearbook--but preserved and actually increased funding for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. This is a nice story as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far.

The cuts weren't undertaken on Durbin's initiative. The Clinton deficit-reduction package forced all subcommittees to make cuts, though Durbin does deserve credit for how they were made. Nor was Durbin a happy warrior against the deficit at the time. According to the Congressional Quarterly, he "lamented as shortsighted cuts in programs such as watershed improvement and flood prevention. . . . Durbin blamed the cuts on the clamor in Congress to cut federal spending. "Unless and until members realize that yes, in fact we can cut too much in spending when it comes to important programs, we will continue down this path."' His principles may have led him to complain, but the cuts were hardly draconian. The overall agriculture budget was $62 billion in fiscal 1993, $72 billion in 1994--and $69 billion in 1995 after the cuts.

During his first year as subcommittee chairman Durbin did reduce spending on the $148 million Market Promotion Program by $20 million. The MPP, a classic example of corporate welfare, had in 1992 subsidized the overseas advertising budgets of Sunkist ($7.8 million), Gallo ($4.5 million), and Sunsweet ($3.3 million), among others. According to the Congressional Quarterly, one representative had proposed removing all but $1 from the program, another to slash it by $58 million. Durbin's $20 million cut served to stymie more drastic proposals and may well have saved the MPP from extinction. Using an arcane parliamentary procedure involving amendments to substitute amendments, Durbin arranged matters so that MPP's opponents could only vote his comparatively minor reduction up or down. They "never got the chance to vote on deeper cuts," reported the Congressional Quarterly.

In July 1993, as the Mississippi and its tributaries flooded portions of nine states, including the western edge of Durbin's district, the House took up a $5.7 billion disaster-aid bill to help the area recover. Durbin strenuously opposed allowing the House even to consider whether the unanticipated expense should be balanced by reducing spending elsewhere in the federal budget, either that year or next. Durbin characterized the proposal as "overtime, pious oratory." The resulting debate over whether to debate putting the bill on a pay-as-you-go basis was so contentious that it delayed passage for five days.

Most damaging to Durbin's claims to favor a balanced budget is his extraordinarily low (16 percent) 1995 vote rating from the Concord Coalition, a scrupulously nonpartisan group founded by former senators Warren Rudman, a Republican, and Paul Tsongas, a Democrat, and dedicated to "eliminating the deficit and bringing entitlements down to a level that's fair to all generations." Of Illinois' 20 representatives, only Sidney Yates and downstater Lane Evans were rated lower. (The coalition scored Durbin at 39 percent in 1993 and 13 percent in 1994, so his low 1995 rating is no fluke.) The Concord Coalition did approve of Durbin's votes against the space station, against the B-2 bomber, for a 3 percent defense cut, and for a measure denying farm subsidies to people with off-farm incomes over $100,000. (Of course these are all votes Durbin might well have cast as a matter of policy, whether budget deficits were a problem or not.) But on the big-ticket items--the Balanced Budget Amendment and various budget-balancing resolutions--he did not take what the Concord Coalition regards as the thrifty side, even when party loyalty presented no obstacle. The "Blue Dog" Democrats' compromise proposal for balancing the budget by 2002, for instance, included no tax cuts, less defense spending, and more domestic spending than the Republican version--but Durbin voted against it.

Durbin's best credential as a centrist New Democrat is probably his support of the welfare-reform package signed by President Clinton (which would have little effect on the budget, since AFDC is a minuscule portion of federal spending). Durbin has supported welfare reform since at least 1985, when he voted for a Gingrich amendment requiring states to set up workfare programs for food stamp recipients. The reforms he favors tend to be less punitive than those favored by the public in its current mood: in 1994 he told Jeff Ignatius of Springfield's Illinois Times that "Clinton's two years and out is pretty tough medicine," indicating that he preferred that decisions on when to drop people from the welfare rolls be made on a case-by-case basis. (The Illinois Times headlined the piece "Split personality--Dick Durbin wants to be the Tough Guy and Mr. Sensitive when it comes to welfare reform.")

This session Durbin voted against Republican welfare reforms and for a more moderate version of reform than the one President Clinton signed. But he supported the president's bill and loyally defends it, as Clinton does, by saying we'll fix the bad parts next year. Many liberals have blistered this stance. The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, says that not only did Clinton's bill make "children, immigrants, the poor, and the elderly" more vulnerable, it also "eroded free speech for not-for-profit organizations, violated the separation of church and state, and damaged privacy rights by establishing a de facto national identification system." If Durbin were an entirely unrepentant New Deal liberal he would never have cast that vote.

Unlike most politicos, Durbin is willing to be seen in public in the act of changing his mind. He entered Congress, upsetting middle-of-the-road Republican Paul Findley in 1982, as a moderately prolife candidate who supported the Equal Rights Amendment. "In Congress I supported more government restrictions on abortion," Durbin says, but two things made him change his mind. "I was stunned by many prolifers' opposition to family-planning grants. On one occasion I went to war with now vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp and beat him in the appropriations committee to continue family-planning grants abroad as long as they weren't used for abortion." The second thing has become a classic Durbin story. In the late 1980s he visited a Quincy home for neglected children, where he heard two 17-year-olds describe their experiences of rape and incest. He'd just voted to deny funding for abortions in those cases and was already uneasy with his vote. "After our talk I thought to myself, "You're just wrong on this, to have government meddling in this area.' So I did the unthinkable and politically unwise thing. Politically it would have been smarter to maintain an ambivalent position. My district is very conservative on this."

But since his change of heart Durbin has been staunchly prochoice. "I felt that once you've drifted from the pure position it's wisest to avoid government intervention. And unlike some of my colleagues, I took the time to sit down and talk to women who had been through this." He's even voted against parental notification when teenagers seek abortions. "He hasn't seen a system that's workable yet," says his staffer Terry Stephan.

A similar openness (not much mentioned these days) marked Durbin's staunch opposition to the gulf war in 1990-'91. He participated in the suit brought by congressional members to force President Bush to bring the issue before Congress--"the first time a president had done so in 50 years, since Pearl Harbor," Durbin notes proudly. A marathon two-day debate ensued--"One of Congress's finest moments in recent times, I think. It resulted in a vote on the issue, and I voted no. Speaker Thomas Foley then said, "Since the measure has passed, let's make it unanimous.' We did."

On October 5 Durbin's brown campaign Suburban turns into Al's #1 Italian Beef on West Taylor for a quick Saturday lunch. Durbin jokes with the servers ("You don't take tips?!") and consumes his sandwich and magnificently greasy fries standing up at the counter. In the process he gets acquainted with the men munching on either side of him--one a real estate developer, the other a diamond importer. Then it's on to the Justice for All meeting, then to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134 hall, at the corner of Washington and Jefferson, where a combination rally and football-watching party is in progress.


®MDNM¯Durbin's timing couldn't be better. Northwestern's Brian Gowins has just kicked the football through the uprights, sealing a 17-16 comeback win over Michigan. The candidate quickly makes his way through the crowded, slightly smoky gymnasium-size room. At the podium his speech is memorably brief. "Sorry I'm late," he kids, "but Coach Barnett wouldn't let me leave until the last field goal was kicked. That's the way we want the election to end too--with the good guys winning." The crowd roars, the giant helmets huddle and bump inaudibly on the TV screens, and Congress's number-one crusader against tobacco waves happily to his fans through a light blue haze.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marc Pokempner.

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