With the 2004 election just around the corner, the ire of Illinois pols and pol watchers is zeroing in on U.S. senator Peter Fitzgerald. “A lot of us helped him win his election four years ago,” U.S. congressman Ray LaHood, a Republican, complained late last year to the Sun-Times. “And frankly, we haven’t heard from him since.” LaHood won’t challenge Fitzgerald for the Republican Senate nomination in March 2004, but he hopes someone else will.

Three Democrats have already announced they’re running, and two more are ready to. Wealthy challenger Blair Hull, who made his money in investment banking, is reportedly prepared to spend more than the $14 million Fitzgerald spent on his own 1998 campaign. Gery Chico, Mayor Daley’s former chief of staff and former president of the Chicago Board of Education, has raised $1 million for his race. State senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy January 21, and state comptroller Dan Hynes and Cook County treasurer Maria Pappas are preparing to do likewise.

Among the pundits, John Kass, lining up with the mayor for a change, has attacked Fitzgerald for going too far in opposing the O’Hare expansion, a stand Kass predicted last April “will hurt him politically.” In a December 2 column Steve Neal blasted Fitzgerald as “politically unstable…a quixotic gadfly…[who] abused his office to prevent a federal endorsement of the expansion of O’Hare Airport.”

Interviewed on WBBM AM on December 8, state treasurer and state Republican chairman Judy Baar Topinka defended Fitzgerald–though in surprisingly muted tones given that they were once seatmates in the state senate and are now the only statewide Republican officeholders. “I would discourage a primary [contest] in general,” she said. “It’s best we try and hold what we’ve got….Until someone actually files, as far as I’m concerned there’s only one candidate.”

Anyone who can offend or neutralize so many people has to be doing something right.

Fitzgerald is widely and accurately known as a conservative. A strong opponent of abortion rights, he backs war with Iraq regardless of what the UN says, rarely defends civil liberties, and votes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s way about four-fifths of the time. But his conservatism is tempered by a libertarian-populist streak. As state senator, he advocated auctioning off casino licenses rather than bestowing them on political favorites. And he shares many traits with good-government reformers: a fascination with the technical details of legislation, an allergy to insider deals, and a stubborn refusal to quit and declare victory even when he’s gotten all he’s likely to get. In 1998 he said, “I believe you choose, soon after you’re elected, just whose team you’re on. You either play for the insiders, or you play for the people back home.”

Unlike former governor George Ryan, he won’t sit down and deal with Mayor Daley on O’Hare. His intransigence allowed significant improvements to be made in the Senate bill that would lock in an O’Hare expansion plan, but he won’t acknowledge his success and continues to call the plan “a back-room deal that sought to completely circumvent Illinois law, the Illinois legislature, and above all, the [FAA] permitting process for runway design and configuration.” This stubborn independence sets him apart from the right-wing herd. It may also bring him down.

In 1992, after a few years as a commercial banking attorney, the 32-year-old Fitzgerald began his political career by getting elected to a suburban state senate seat. Not one to wait his turn, he mounted a 1994 primary challenge to entrenched conservative U.S. representative Phil Crane. He lost.

A year later Fitzgerald again raised Republican hackles when he criticized state government loans to politically connected downstaters William Cellini and Gary Fears for luxury hotels in Springfield and Collinsville. Republican governor Jim Thompson and Democratic state treasurer Jerome Cosentino had OK’d the loans in 1982 as part of the Illinois Insured Mortgage Pilot Program. Unlike most loans under this program, they weren’t promptly repaid. In 1990, just before Thompson and Cosentino left office, they “restructured” the loans, renegotiating the terms in what might be tactfully described as an unconventional way–among other things, they lowered the interest rate, gave the borrowers an extra 15 years to pay, and agreed to apply payments directly to the principal.

By 1995 it was clear that the loans were bad. Cellini and Fears owed $40 million, and the hotels were appraised at less than half that. The state was unlikely ever to get all of its money back. Newly elected state treasurer Judy Baar Topinka offered to settle for $10 million, and the borrowers immediately accepted.

Fitzgerald’s July 1995 letter to state attorney general Jim Ryan was blunt. “In my several years of experience I have never seen any loan work-out document that was so one-sided in favor of a Borrower,” he wrote. “These terms are highly unusual and irregular. They are so irregular as to be unbelievable….In layman’s terms, [the restructuring] is a gift, not a loan.” In his opinion, a bank officer who offered comparable terms to a delinquent borrower would go to jail.

Attorney General Ryan tried to stop the settlement, saying Topinka had exceeded her authority. The borrowers sued to enforce the settlement and won. The attorney general’s appeal is still pending.

No realistic observer thinks Topinka could have gotten the full $40 million, but some think she could have done better than $10 million. The borrowers obviously believe the settlement was a good deal, since they’ve invested seven years’ worth of attorneys’ fees in an effort to preserve it. So at this point, Fitzgerald’s skepticism about Thompson’s restructuring and Topinka’s settlement seems justified–at least from the point of view of the people back home.

“Hotelgate” turned out to be a classic Fitzgerald issue: it’s populist in spirit, it turns on mind-boggling technicalities, and it throws mud on powerful people who might otherwise have helped him move up.

To get to the U.S. Senate in 1998 Fitzgerald had to pull a double upset, defeating the Republican leaders’ choice, Loleta Didrickson, in the primary, and then incumbent Carol Moseley Braun in that fall’s general election. Once elected, he showed he hadn’t forgotten how to interfere with political business as usual.

In October 2000 he filibustered against a $19 billion Department of the Interior appropriations bill that included $50 million for construction of the Abraham Lincoln Interpretive Center in Springfield–because he was upset that the bill didn’t require Illinois to bid the job under federal procurement rules. According to the Congressional Quarterly, “Fitzgerald argued that Illinois’ procurement statute has weak competitive bidding requirements and charged that Republican Gov. George Ryan–a political foe–would use the library project to enrich his friends and donors.” After speaking for almost ten hours on the subject of corruption in Illinois, Fitzgerald conceded defeat. His colleague Senator John McCain called it a “valiant effort.” Fitzgerald told the Congressional Quarterly, “I think our point has been made.”

In January 2001 the entire Illinois congressional delegation got together under the auspices of Republican LaHood and Democrat William Lipinski. They composed a letter listing 247 pet projects on which they wanted the new president’s help. The total price tag was roughly $600 million, and included money for reconstructing the Stevenson expressway, building several light-rail projects, repairing Chicago el lines, restoring the Illinois River basin, rebuilding the Chicago shoreline, and constructing the Lincoln library. Fitzgerald’s staff participated in preliminary meetings, but in the end he refused to sign on because the letter implied that every member supported every project.

“The mere fact that a project is located somewhere within the state of Illinois does not mean that it is inherently meritorious or necessarily worthy of support,” Fitzgerald wrote to Speaker Dennis Hastert, with more honesty, and more hauteur, than politicians usually allow themselves. Just in case anyone missed the point, Fitzgerald’s communications director told the newspaper Roll Call that the delegation’s missive was a “mega hog letter” embodying the kind of pork-barrel spending Fitzgerald had been elected to stop, not support.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress rushed to compensate air carriers for their losses while travel had been shut down, but ignored the plight of their laid-off employees. Fitzgerald declined to join the stampede, casting the lone vote against the bailout. The $15 billion bailout, Fitzgerald said, grossly overcompensated the airlines–four days of a shutdown,

multiplied by their losses of $340 million per day, works out to less than one-tenth of $15 billion. (The airlines claimed the money was also to help them through the post-9/11 period, when people were reluctant to fly.) In addition, the bailout offered no help to airline employees who’d lost their jobs. “Congress bailed the investors and booted the skycap,” Fitzgerald wrote at the time. “If Congress had constructed a responsible package…the effort to assist the airlines in a rough time could have

been a legitimate enterprise. But Congress effectively wrote a blank check with no strings attached.”

Fitzgerald has stood on principle in less visible matters as well. In another case of allegedly excessive and unfairly distributed federal subsidies, he was willing to risk offending the Farm Bureau (otherwise a big fan of his) by criticizing the way the government subsidizes farmers. In a column sent to newspapers he cited Agriculture Department reports that the biggest 18 percent of farms get 74 percent of federal farm benefits, noting, “A system that directs assistance to millionaires, including some who aren’t even active farmers, while hard-working family farmers struggle to make ends meet, is flawed and should be improved.” In the debate over last year’s farm bill he proposed limiting federal farm payments to $225,000 per individual per year and giving them only to people actively engaged in farming. He had to settle for a commission to study the question.

Rarely has Fitzgerald prevailed in his crusades. His legislative successes have tended to be smaller, like his first freestanding bill to become law–a 2000 measure requiring that food stamps issued in electronic form (known as electronic benefit transfer accounts) be usable in more than one state, for the convenience of Illinois recipients who shop in neighboring states.

Because the 2000 election put a Republican in the White House, Fitzgerald has one major achievement that will stand. As the senior senator of the president’s party in the state, he got to fill the U.S. attorney’s offices in northern, central, and southern Illinois, and he chose prosecutors who aren’t Illinois insiders and who have reputations for independence and toughness–a widely praised action that even his most venomous attackers have been unable to find serious fault with.

Fitzgerald has broken with conservative-libertarian orthodoxy on more than just good-government stuff. In 1999 he provided a critical high-profile Republican vote for criminal-background checks of gun-show gun buyers. “I support reasonable limitations that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals,” he told the National Journal at the time–a position not consonant with the Second Amendment absolutism of the NRA.

In one of the many murky battles over managed care, Fitzgerald and three other Republicans–McCain, Lincoln Chafee, and Arlen Specter–voted with Democrats in June 2000 to expand patients’ rights to sue their HMOs. “I think actually lifting their tort immunity would be a free-market way to improve their behavior,” he told the New York Times in 1999–a position abhorred by libertarian tort reformers and business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce.

Like Illinois’ senior senator, Democrat Dick Durbin, Fitzgerald has consistently backed federal subsidies for ethanol production–even though the libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative Heritage Foundation have harshly criticized such measures as unproductive corporate welfare for agribusiness giant and ethanol powerhouse Archer Daniels Midland. Fitzgerald says he backs “tax incentives to promote ethanol and other sources of environmentally friendly renewable energy, such as soy diesel, and wind and solar power,” to help the infant industries get on their feet. “It is in our interest to lessen our dependence on foreign sources of oil as well as to develop sources of energy that are clean and inexhaustible.”

That viewpoint led him to vote against oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a favorite project of conservatives, libertarians, and President Bush. The refuge is “a national treasure,” Fitzgerald says. “We should not disrupt this pristine natural area unless it is absolutely necessary, and I don’t believe that to be the case.”

Preserving Alaskan wilderness may seem an easy call for someone who’s far away in the midwest, where few Alaskan oil workers vote, but Iowa Republican Charles Grassley voted to drill there. And Fitzgerald has maintained his stand against drilling in environmentally sensitive areas even when the issue hit closer to home. In 2001 he joined Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow in cosponsoring and passing a two-year moratorium on drilling for oil beneath the Great Lakes, which may soon be extended.

According to the annual scorecards issued by the League of Conservation Voters, Fitzgerald voted for the environmentally orthodox position 44 percent of the time in 1999, 57 percent in 2000, 38 percent in 2001, and 52 percent in 2002. Those are high marks for a Republican (and a Fitzgerald press release on October 23 called attention to them), though they’re not even close to Durbin’s consistent ratings of nearly 100 percent from the group.

It’s always fun to see someone go against type, but nobody should confuse Fitzgerald with a liberal. The National Taxpayers Union, which favors lower taxes and less government spending across the board, gave Fitzgerald a 77 percent favorable rating on his votes in 2001, while Durbin rated only 7 percent.

Fitzgerald’s strong opposition to abortion rights is well-known. On January 22 he thanked Illinois participants in the Washington, D.C., March for Life for their efforts “to protect the nation’s most vulnerable citizens,” and he’s a lead cosponsor of legislation to ban “partial-birth” abortions. Citizens who’ve already been born may find Fitzgerald less vigilant about their rights. In 1999 he voted for a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag burning, a stand that’s consistent with his general approach to civil liberties. The ACLU figures that over the past four years he’s voted wrong on 11 out of 12 votes the group considered important, including votes against affirming Roe v. Wade and in favor of a hard-line juvenile-justice law.

I asked Fitzgerald if he saw any civil-liberties problems with the USA PATRIOT Act, which has been criticized for provisions such as the one authorizing secret FBI searches of library-card use. Responding through a spokesperson, he called the act a “common-sense update of existing procedures.” He added that “Congress should, of course, carefully follow the implementation of the Act and, if problems are uncovered, consider corrections.” That provoked a follow-up question, given that Wisconsin Republican representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. threatened in August to subpoena Attorney General John Ashcroft to obtain information about how the government has used the act–precisely the kind of information Congress needs to “carefully follow” its implementation. I asked whether Fitzgerald thought the Bush administration had been cooperative in this oversight effort. Through a spokesperson, he declined to elaborate on his previous answer.

Fitzgerald has also been a good soldier in President Bush’s pending war (though he did join those who objected to the president’s initial draft resolution as overbroad because it wasn’t limited to Iraq). This conservative stance is in sharp contrast to libertarian thinking. Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute argued in a September 24 paper that Saddam wasn’t suicidal and so wondered why Bush administration officials thought he had to be attacked rather than merely deterred, in keeping with America’s long-standing policy toward aggressive tyrants during the cold war. “It cannot be that Saddam is more brutal than America’s previous adversaries,” Carpenter wrote. “Khruschchev and Brezhnev were equally thuggish, and as a colleague of mine has noted, Mao and Stalin were the gold and silver medalists in the 20th century’s genocide Olympics.”

Fitzgerald takes a different view. “Late-20th-century analogies are not really on point,” he responded to my question on the subject. “Terrorist groups like al Qaeda are undeterred by the threat of retaliation. They are, after all, willing to die in suicide missions. Saddam Hussein has worked with terrorist networks for many years, and has himself ordered acts of terror. He shares many objectives with groups like al Qaeda, and may decide to use terrorists to conceal his responsibility for an attack on the United States….Iraq must be disarmed, and time is of the essence.” No one’s going to confuse him with Durbin on this issue.

In the war against corporate corruption, Fitzgerald in February 2002 used his senatorial bully pulpit to tell Enron’s Kenneth Lay that he was “the most accomplished confidence man this country’s seen since Charles Ponzi. I’d say you were a carnival barker, except that wouldn’t be fair to carnival barkers.” But Lay was an easy target, and Fitzgerald has directed no comparable broadside at lax regulators on the Securities and Exchange Commission or the president who appointed them. When I asked whether the SEC too deserved criticism, he would say only that, prior to the Enron debacle, it had been underfunded and “lulled to sleep.”

Some of Fitzgerald’s least independent actions have come in his own field of expertise, governmental finance. In 1999 and 2000, when a Democrat was in the White House and everyone was trumpeting the federal budget surplus, Fitzgerald publicly made the case that by proper accounting standards–if social security and other trust funds were counted separately–the federal budget was still in deficit and would be for a long time. He even told the Tribune’s Mike Dorning that tax cuts “should wait until they have a truly balanced budget.”

But since Bush became president, Fitzgerald has said less and less even as the government’s financial situation has become more and more dire. Revenues have been reduced by the recession and the tax cut, while expenditures have increased by billions for homeland security and war preparations. In a 2002 election-eve advisory, the nonpartisan Concord Coalition warned, “The government’s rapidly deteriorating fiscal outlook poses a serious challenge for Congress and the President. Failure to adjust budget policy could turn a manageable problem into a crisis by the end of the decade.”

When I asked just how he would reduce deficits, Fitzgerald simply restated his opposition to them. He favors the Bush economic plan with its tax cuts, and he would like to make it more difficult for Congress to hide the deficit by using the social security trust fund. This may make good conservative politics (voters hate deficits and love particular programs), but it can hardly be described as an example of either independence or good government.

There are at least three intellectually coherent, if implausible, ways to defend the Bush deficits. You can take the old-time liberal view that deficits don’t matter (dubious, and a flip-flop for Fitzgerald). You can take the old-time Reaganite supply-side view that tax cuts will lead to prosperity and increase government revenues (almost certainly false). Or you can take the hard-right view that the real problem is federal discretionary spending on things like environmental enforcement, housing, education, and energy assistance, which should all be drastically downsized (wildly unpopular). The kindest construction one can give Fitzgerald’s silence is that he knows all three positions are indefensible but doesn’t dare say so.

As a senator from Illinois, Fitzgerald can be expected to win or lose reelection in 2004 on Illinois issues, and the O’Hare expansion is a big one. One reason the long knives are out for him among Republicans and Democrats alike is that he’s standing in the way of improved air travel and, oh yes, a bonanza of paving contracts.

The most recent act in this ongoing drama began on December 5, 2001, when Mayor Daley and Governor Ryan put the finishing touches on their compromise deal to add runways at O’Hare (and to proceed more slowly with a third airport near south-suburban Peotone). Senator Durbin immediately tried to pass their plan into federal law, so that no governor could undo it once Ryan was gone. Durbin introduced it as S. 1786 and attached it as an amendment to an unrelated defense-appropriations bill that had been expected to pass quickly with a minimum of scrutiny. Fitzgerald spoke against the O’Hare amendment for several hours on December 7, delaying the defense bill until an upset Durbin had to withdraw his amendment.

This was the good-government Fitzgerald at his finest. No one who believes in open debate and open government could favor passing a bill renovating a keystone of the national aviation system without discussion–something the Tribune’s Eric Zorn pointed out at the time. Even if the Durbin bill ultimately proved as solid as the Constitution and as uncontroversial as sliced bread, in December 2001 slowing down the process was the right thing to do.

Of course, open debate and open government aren’t just good ideas in principle. They also usually lead to better legislation. And it turns out that slowing the process down did make time for Durbin’s bill to be improved.

The original bill contained an antienvironment rider, the kind of provision Durbin has opposed in other cases. It provided that if the operation of new O’Hare runways turned out to violate any Clean Air Act implementation plan, the EPA “shall forthwith cause or promulgate a revision of such implementation sufficient for the runway redesign plan to satisfy the requirements.” This astonishing provision–if a runway design flunks pollution standards, lower the standards until it can pass–isn’t in the new bill, S. 2039, but it would already be federal law if Fitzgerald weren’t senator.

The original bill also contained a provision that would allow the federal government to take over construction at O’Hare if nothing had been done by December 2004 and if the city of Chicago agreed. This provision doesn’t appear in S. 2039, to the evident relief of FAA administrator Jane Garvey. In a letter sent to Durbin on May 28, 2002, she wrote, “Although we did have concerns with the earlier versions of the bill, we believe S. 2039 more closely follows the normal Federal role in aviation funding and approval and largely addresses our main concerns over granting unique priorities for the O’Hare redesign during the environmental process and removing the ‘federalizing’ of construction provision.”

Judging from Garvey’s cagey phrasing, it would appear that Durbin’s original bill didn’t follow the “normal Federal role”–as Fitzgerald had claimed all along. He said the Durbin bill in effect politicized airline safety by legislating matters of runway design that FAA professionals should be allowed to determine on technical grounds (keeping professional decisions out of politics is a classic theme of good-government politics). On May 1 and May 15 Fitzgerald sent detailed “Dear colleague” letters to fellow senators saying, “Senator Durbin’s bill, S. 2039, does not simply instruct the FAA that it must expand O’Hare, leaving the details of the expansion up to the FAA. Rather, S. 2039 dictates a specific runway design and expansion plan–namely, a six-parallel, east-west design,” which some experts view as potentially unsafe. “Never, in the history of aviation in America, has Congress passed a law that dictated a design or expansion plan for an airport”–a serious charge that, if true, would seem to warrant almost any amount of obstructionism on his part. (The letters are available on his official Web site.)

Fitzgerald’s charge may well have been true of S. 2039 last May. It’s hard to tell, because the bill contained both the language he cites and other language that might be construed to preserve FAA authority. But all that became moot in June, when S. 2039 went through the Senate Commerce Committee, on which Fitzgerald sits. In the course of the committee’s deliberations, he was able to add an amendment to the bill that states flatly, “Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, the [FAA] Administrator is not required to approve the proposed runway redesign plan.”

In June the committee approved Durbin’s bill as amended. Seven of the committee’s 11 Republicans voted for it, including John McCain and Olympia Snowe of Maine, who seem unlikely to be in Mayor Daley’s thrall. The committee’s June 11 report on the bill directly contradicted Fitzgerald’s claim that the bill interfered with the FAA’s technical judgment: “Nothing in the bill,” it said, “mandates that a specific set of runway configurations be approved.”

When pressed on this point, Fitzgerald again replied through a spokesperson, who referred me to his “Dear colleague” letters–even though they predate both his amendment and the committee report. I have no idea why he thinks his amendment didn’t cure the problem.

Though the bill has changed, Fitzgerald’s threat to tie up Senate business hasn’t. He kept the improved version of S. 2039 bottled up throughout 2002–a good idea in December 2001, but a questionable one since June. Of course Fitzgerald objects to the Daley-Ryan plan on other grounds. He thinks that expanding O’Hare is like trying to put ten pounds of stuff into a five-pound bag and that the far bigger Peotone site would better accommodate growth in air travel. And he’s concerned that the bill gives Chicago’s mayor condemnation powers outside the city limits. But outside the near-northwest and far-south suburbs, these issues are hardly attention grabbers.

Fitzgerald’s continuing dubious claim that S. 2039 orders the FAA around seems to confirm speculation that he’s just blowing good-government smoke on behalf of die-hard northwest-suburban Republicans who oppose O’Hare expansion no matter what. Still, he remains the only prominent Illinois politician willing to throw a monkey wrench into the well-oiled political machine of either party–even if he doesn’t always know when to take it out.

Fitzgerald’s senate career can’t be summarized in the bumper-sticker punditry of the Sun-Times, but it’s tempting to try: “Fitzgerald–better than his critics allow”? “Usually unbought and unbossed”? “One more conservative for farm-subsidy fairness”? Of course voters may make their choice without considering his record at all, simply on the basis of the larger political picture. His reelection would help keep Illinois a two-party state, but it would also help maintain one-party control of all three branches of the federal government.

But party affiliation isn’t everything. After 9/11 Congress rushed to pass two bills with little consideration and less dissent–the USA PATRIOT Act and the airline bailout. Few were willing to stand up and say that the PATRIOT Act endangered the Bill of Rights or that the airline bailout was grossly unfair. Only two senators said so and voted accordingly. Wisconsin’s Russell Feingold cast the only Senate vote against the PATRIOT Act, and Fitzgerald cast the only Senate vote against the bailout. They both acted with common sense and principle in a time of panic. If Fitzgerald’s challengers think they deserve the office he holds, they need to show they can do the same.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Joe Rocco.