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Senator Peter Fitzgerald: Why he's the lead in an unfolding Illinois Republican soap opera

Senator Peter Fitzgerald
Lauren Shay

This first Thursday in February is a busy one for Peter Fitzgerald, the junior senator from Illinois. He's in Washington and in a few hours the U.S. Senate will hold John Ashcroft's confirmation vote for attorney general. It's Fitzgerald's turn to preside every Thursday afternoon, so, by chance, he will be wielding the gavel during the actual roll call on President George W. Bush's most controversial nomination. Fitzgerald's bit role in history will be noted in a press release his office will dispatch by nightfall. 

Fitzgerald's day starts, as it does every Thursday whenever the Senate is at work, at the Illinois breakfast, the informal coffee, donut and muffin meetings he hosts with the state's senior senator, Dick Durbin.

On this morning, Ann Williams, a justice on the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and president of the Federal Judges Association, comes to the breakfast in a third-floor hearing room of the Russell Senate Office Building to shore up the senators' support for judicial pay boosts. Fitzgerald spots the Clinton appointee in the audience and introduces her. Williams praises the two for their teamwork because, unlike in other states, there is no long line of judicial vacancies in Illinois. "We have two great senators," she volunteers. 

In fact, the chemistry between Republican Fitzgerald and Democrat Durbin - pretty much political opposites - is terrific, which is good for Fitzgerald because he declared war on the Illinois Republican establishment last fall. He could use a friend in Congress.

"I get along well with Peter Fitzgerald, and we have had a good working relationship for two years, to the amazement of both of us, and I want it to continue," says Durbin. 

• • •

Though Fitzgerald's drive against what he considers pork spending and state government corruption is earning him rave editorials, it's come at the cost of creating ill will within the Illinois congressional delegation. Fitzgerald has a nasty feud on with Gov. George Ryan and, to say the least, a deep misunderstanding with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Yorkville. He is further alienating Hastert by refusing to discuss with him the selection of the three new Bush Administration U.S. attorneys for the state. Says Hastert, "Peter's got a war going."

Indeed, Peter Fitzgerald is the lead in an unfolding Illinois Republican soap opera, the hottest political show in the state. Sworn in as a senator two years ago, he opened the door to running for governor in 2002, raising questions about his motives and goals. Adding to the confusion, the multimillionaire just promised to spend the next two years as a major national fundraiser for Senate Republicans. Fitzgerald says he's just doing his job.

This is a question on a lot of minds: What does he really want? Fitzgerald took a two-term pledge, so he's not supposed to be a senator forever, unless he breaks his word. At 40, he's the youngest member of the U.S. Senate, and a career crisis is 10 years away if he simply runs for re-election. Winning even that is not a given. Fitzgerald beat Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, a weakened incumbent, by only a sliver in 1998.

And it's this uncertainty that's the real key to understanding Fitzgerald. Whether his next statewide run is 2002 or 2004, he's determined to remain electable in a state that rewards political moderates and went heavily for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore last November.

Though they're from opposite parties, Illinois' two U.S. senators have a cordial relationship. Richard Durbin and Peter Fitzgerald co-host state breakfasts.
Credit Lauren Shay
Though they're from opposite parties, Illinois' two U.S. senators have a cordial relationship. Richard Durbin and Peter Fitzgerald co-host state breakfasts.

In the meantime, Fitzgerald can afford to pick fights. He owes nothing to nobody. He's one of the Senate's wealthiest members, and he beat Moseley-Braun after giving or loaning his campaign $11.5 million. His fortune comes from his father, who built a string of suburban banks into a company that sold for $246 million in 1994 to the Bank of Montreal, a parent of Harris Bankcorp. During the campaign he said he would consider putting his holdings in a blind trust, but he never did. He votes present on bills where he sees a conflict. Fitzgerald's main asset is his Bank of Montreal stock, valued at between $25 million and $50 million, according to his Senate disclosure statement. He paid for one campaign. He has the resources to finance another.

But there's this: the Fitzgerald myth and the Peter realities. Moseley-Braun and Republican primary rival Loleta Didrickson portrayed Fitzgerald as a far-right-wing extremist out of step with the state. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald managed to vault to the U.S. Senate from the state Senate, and in his six years in Springfield, though conservative and anti-abortion, he was not a dependable GOP vote. He fought for riverboat licenses to be bid and against sweetheart state hotel loans. Still, the unschooled perception, reinforced by Moseley-Braun, that Fitzgerald was a lockstep right-winger stuck.

"She lowered expectations," Fitzgerald says of Moseley-Braun. It was a gift that is turning out to be so valuable it should have been reported as an in-kind donation.

About six months after becoming a U.S. senator, Fitzgerald started getting good Illinois and national press because he was bucking the GOP on a few key votes. Indeed, he relishes being called an independent, even a maverick. Fitzgerald says no one should have been surprised. He telegraphed his punches during his election campaign, when he was supportive of gun control, patient rights and environmental measures.

Once in Washington, he voted with Democrats to give patients more control in a managed health care bill and weighed in again with the Democrats on a crucial gun control vote, a move to close the gun show loophole by doing background checks on potential buyers. He co-sponsored Durbin's bill to save the Utah wilderness, which the Sierra Club favored.

"He is not a man hung up on ideology," says former U.S. Rep. John Edward Porter, who was a Wilmette Republican.

Fitzgerald's voting record shows why it's difficult to pick an adjective to use before his name. He voted to impeach President Bill Clinton and to reject Moseley-Braun's nomination as ambassador to New Zealand. However, after two full years, he is trending left toward the middle, not right. The National Journal pegged him as among the Senate centrists, calling him one of "the 11 most liberal Republicans." Fitzgerald got a 15 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1999, increasing that to 25 percent in 2000.

"Independence is my objective," says Fitzgerald. "I think there are a lot of things that can get in the way of a senator representing his or her constituents. Lobbyists can get in the way; party leaders can get in the way; the party itself can get in the way; your friends could get in the way.

"Close friendships could try to be used to influence you. And I think the key for a senator is to keep his or her eye on the ball and vote the interests of their constituents," says Fitzgerald. "I am a senator from Illinois first and a Republican second."

Charles Percy, Illinois' previous Republican U.S. senator, chats with the state's newest Republican senator, Peter Fitzgerald.
Credit Lauren Shay
Lauren Shay
Charles Percy, Illinois' previous Republican U.S. senator, chats with the state's newest Republican senator, Peter Fitzgerald.

Peter Gosselin Fitzgerald is suspicious by nature and cautious by practice. He is not one to offer a reporter an analysis about what makes him tick. That would be risky and he does not believe he can afford any mistakes. But there are insights to be gained by a visit to Fitzgerald's suite in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. 

On a wall in his personal office is a portrait of a Navy officer, his maternal uncle Ed Gosselin, who died when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The suite is full of rare maps, many of early Illinois, on loan from his father, Gerald Francis Fitzgerald, who had them sitting around in drawers.

Over on a credenza is a splash of pictures of his wife, Nina, and their son, Jake, now 8 years old and in the third grade at an exclusive private school in northwest Washington. A coffee table holds a copy of a book by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, The Senate of the Roman Republic. Fitzgerald sent a copy of Byrd's book to all 59 members of the Illinois Senate.

But the showstopper is the portrait of George Washington, another parental leaner. It's an original Rembrandt Peale (an artist who is renowned for his paintings of the nation's first president). Christie's, the auction house in New York, sold the oil to Fitzgerald's father for $11,500 in 1995.

When Fitzgerald arrived in Washington, he rented a one-bedroom furnished apartment in an upscale downtown building, leaving Nina and Jake behind in their northwest suburban Inverness home. After Jake finished first grade at a school in Palatine, the Fitzgerald family moved to a 4,000-square-foot townhouse in McLean, Va., a Washington suburb with wealthy enclaves. Fitzgerald won't disclose exactly where he lives or how much rent he pays, except to say that it's market value. "That is kind of a personal question." 

Fitzgerald left the northwest suburbs after attending grammar school at St. Theresa's in Palatine. He prepped at Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island and majored in Latin and Greek at Dartmouth College. He spent a post-graduate year in Greece studying at the Aristotelian University before returning to the United States to pick up a law degree at Michigan State University, paving the way to become a banking attorney.

Credit Lauren Shay

  The Greek-speaking Fitzgerald keeps a domestic focus. He has declined offers to travel overseas on official congressional trips to get around the state. "There are a lot of parts of Illinois I haven't seen yet," he says.

In one of his rare foreign policy initiatives, Fitzgerald sponsored a resolution calling on the British government to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, where they were once part of the Parthenon in Athens. His antiquities measure remains buried.

Fitzgerald's biggest legislative success so far is toughening safety standards on child passenger seats. Seat makers, under the new rules, have to put side impact padding on seats and offer consumers more information in plain English.

He has his causes: national organ transplant policy and promoting the use of ethanol as the leading additive in cleaner burning fuel. Illinois is a leading ethanol producing state.

Last September, however, Fitzgerald opened a new front. Planning for the $115 million Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield had been ongoing for years. The Land of Lincoln is going to be the showcase home for scattered collections of Honest Abe's life and work. But federal money is needed to make the project happen. Fitzgerald and Durbin co-sponsored a library funding bill in the Senate and U.S. Reps. Ray LaHood, a Peoria Republican, and John Shimkus, a Collinsville Republican, championed the measure in the House.

Fitzgerald pursued insider deals while in the state Senate and suspected that Ryan's pals would end up with no-bid library boondoggles because of loopholes in the state procurement code. He got the U.S. Senate to approve an amendment requiring the use of federal competitive standards for the project. Hastert figured the federal rules would cause needless delays, and no one in Springfield wanted them anyway. Instead, the speaker put the $10 million down payment on the $50 million federal library financial package in the Interior appropriation, a $19.9 billion behemoth heading toward easy passage.

Hastert's maneuver was "morally and ethically wrong," Fitzgerald said at the time, an out-of-line slur that left the speaker smoldering and his loyalists inflamed, especially LaHood. Fitzgerald threatened a filibuster when the Interior bill hit the Senate floor.

Last October 4 was the defining bridge-burning day in Fitzgerald's Senate career. Around noon, armed with charts and decades of newspaper clippings, he walked into the Senate chamber and started outlining the considerable history of political corruption in Illinois and his concerns that contracts for the Lincoln library would be fixed.

"How long does the senator expect to continue speaking?" Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, politely asked.

"I will speak as long as I need to make the point on this project," said Fitzgerald. "I imagine it will be for quite some time." It turned out to be a day and a half before 89 senators voted to end the filibuster.

While Fitzgerald was hanging up Illinois' dirty laundry, he also was downplaying his responsibility for the problem. As a state senator, Fitzgerald in 1997 voted for the very loophole-ridden state procurement code he was castigating in 2000. And he never voiced timely contracting concerns to Durbin or anyone after he originally agreed to be a library bill co-sponsor.

Ryan, a former secretary of state, is an easy target for Fitzgerald. The governor has been wounded in the ongoing federal investigation into the sale of commercial driver's licenses by workers allegedly pressured to sell fundraising tickets for Ryan's campaign. Ryan's popularity is low. And anti-tax conservatives, whom Fitzgerald needs to keep on his side, have another bone to pick with the free-spending governor: Illinois First, the $12 billion public works program, which uses revenues generated by increases in license plate fees and liquor taxes.

LaHood says Fitzgerald owes Hastert an apology. The Peoria lawmaker has little use for Fitzgerald. "There are very hard feelings between members of our delegation and Peter," says LaHood. Hastert won't straight-out say Fitzgerald should apologize; that's not his style. "First of all, if he has a problem, he ought to come to me and sit down and talk about it. My door is open," says Hastert.

After the filibuster, Fitzgerald intentionally opened the door to a run for governor during a radio interview. In mid-February, he actually said Ryan shouldn't run. Maybe his game plan is to encourage some brand name Republican to run in the primary and not give Ryan a pass if he seeks another term. If no one else surfaces, then Fitzgerald might have to call his own bluff. He can run for governor in 2002 and keep his Senate seat.

"My only concern," says Fitzgerald, "has been that some of the Republicans who have mentioned an interest in governor have said that they would only run in the circumstance that Gov. Ryan chose not to run for re-election, and I am not sure that their conclusion is in the best interest either of our party or for our state."

Fitzgerald turned up the heat again in January over the selection of the U.S. attorneys in Illinois, in GOP hands because a Republican is in the White House. By tradition, the senator from the party in power calls most of the shots. Hastert, who is after all the speaker, wants some input. Fitzgerald, concerned that Ryan's pals may try to throw him a ringer, does not want help from anybody. He says he will only consult with Durbin and may bounce things off his wife Nina, his unpaid adviser.

"Anyone is free to give recommendations to President Bush or me," says Fitzgerald. "It's a free country."

"I don't have a candidate. I don't plan on having a candidate and I haven't made any suggestions about a candidate," says Hastert, whose pull in the Bush Administration gives him the ability to influence the process with or without Fitzgerald. "But I hope that person has a holistic view on what should be done," Hastert says. Gun crimes and drug money laundering are as important to Hastert as public corruption.

Just as the flap over federal prosecutors was ripening, Fitzgerald declined to sign on to a delegation letter to President Bush listing the state's budget priorities. "The mere fact that a project is located somewhere within the State of Illinois does not mean that it is inherently meritorious and necessarily worthy of support," he lectured in a letter to Hastert.

Projects are the lifeblood of House members and the pride of Durbin, who is on the Appropriations Committee. Chicago and state officials have a bipartisan alliance to get more out of Washington. Fitzgerald's potential pork is another member's valued project. House members saw the letter as the work of a sanctimonious second-guessing senator. "The truth is we probably don't need him," says LaHood. "We got Durbin in the Senate and Hastert on our side." Says a disappointed Hastert, "We needed a senator in our Republican Party over there to help us get things done."

On that point, Ryan says, "I wish he [Fitzgerald] would work a little harder and try to move Illinois up in the amount of money that we get back from the federal government."

Fitzgerald never got busted around the state for jeopardizing the bacon; however, the dustup caught Sen. John McCain's attention.

He just got a seat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, chaired by McCain, the Arizona Republican much admired by Fitzgerald. He will head the panel's Consumer Affairs Subcommittee while retaining his perch on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

McCain and Fitzgerald got off to a rocky start in 1999. McCain wanted to lift all flight caps at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, an over-my-dead-body issue for Fitzgerald. The freshman whipped up 304 amendments to try to stall the bill. On top of that, he insulted McCain on the Senate floor, saying his "dual responsibilities" as a presidential candidate did not leave him enough time for his senatorial duties.

McCain was livid then. Now he likes the guy. "I've been drawn to him because he has a strong independence streak," McCain says. He sees him as a kindred spirit when it comes to fighting pork barrel spending.

"He is an engaging personality. He is a very pleasant guy to be around," not one given to the "phony camaraderie that you see around here a lot," says McCain.

An association with the popular McCain, who won support from Independents and Democrats during his presidential bid, is a political plus for Fitzgerald, who needs to expand his conservative base.

As much as he likes McCain, though, Fitzgerald is wrestling with campaign finance reform, McCain's major presidential issue. The centerpiece of the bill McCain wrote with Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, bans unregulated soft money, raised in unlimited amounts from wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions otherwise banned from contributing to federal candidates.

"It's hard to tell," Fitzgerald says when asked about a soft money ban. "Banning contributions to myself, I would be opposed to that." Hard money, which can be used directly for a federal campaign, can be raised only in $l,000-per-election donations from individuals, which takes up an enormous amount of time. Fitzgerald's fortune saved him a lot of phone calls. To colleagues who can't self-finance their campaigns, he sounds disdainful and judgmental. "Literally, I see senators every day spending their time raising money six years out, and they are not spending time thinking about their legislation."

The Lincoln library filibuster, while provoking a controversy in Illinois, did Fitzgerald no lasting harm among his Senate colleagues. The Senate allows members to occasionally flex their muscles without paying a price. "I thought he showed enormous courage," says Feingold, a liberal who has a maverick reputation himself for not following his party's line.

For the first time, Fitzgerald is seeking and taking on major fundraising duties. He is the new chief of the National Republican Senatorial Committee's $10,000-a-year premier donor group, called the Republican Senatorial Trust. He'll be stroking donors and helping to recruit Senate candidates in other states.

Sen. William Frist, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the national senatorial committee, says Fitzgerald's "relative independence" will be a plus in fundraising. "He felt he could articulate the Republican voice - futuristic, not living in the past," says Frist. Says Fitzgerald, "This next two years I am going to focus on the Senate campaign committee." Does that sound like a man gearing up to run for governor?

• • •

It's now time to head to the Senate chamber where the Ashcroft vote is taking place. Durbin strides in and turns a thumbs down to the clerk. Fitzgerald, holding a pile of paper, walks up to the well and says yes. "We can all sleep well at night knowing that we have an absolute straight arrow in the highest law enforcement position in this country," he says during floor debate. Ashcroft persuaded Fitzgerald to vote against confirming Ronnie White, the first black Missouri Supreme Court judge, to the federal bench.

Fitzgerald takes the chair to preside, as he does every Thursday between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. There is some time to kill until the voting is closed, so McCain and Feingold use it to go to the well to chat up Fitzgerald about their upcoming trip to Chicago to keep the heat up for passage of their campaign finance bill in March. They are hopeful about his support. "He has fully recognized that we need to change the system," says McCain. 

The voting closes. Fitzgerald announces the 58-42 tally, and that Ashcroft is confirmed.

"I love my job as senator," says Fitzgerald. "And I think I am doing a good job for the people of Illinois and I hope to stay here."

For now, that is. 

Lynn Sweet is the Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief.

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