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Leaders in the Land of Lincoln

Augustana grads serve at Illinois Capitol

June  27, 2013

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. — A. Lincoln

Springfield CVB

We’ve all heard the jokes. And after years of corruption and mismanagement, there are more than a few.

Did you hear about the guy who won $10 million in the Illinois lottery? He’ll get a buck a year for 10 million years.

Illinois: where our governors make our license plates.

Jokes are easy. Trying to get a broken state back on track is hard. And it’s not for everyone. But with so much riding on the outcome, turning your back on the problem shouldn’t be an option. At least it wasn’t for a group of conscientious leaders in Springfield who just happen to share an alma mater.

Three of the Illinois General Assembly’s 177 elected members are Augustana graduates. Another alumna serves as Secretary of Transportation, charged with making sure Illinois—with more primary interstate roads passing through it than any other state—maintains its status as a transportation hub for the nation. What prompted these four to enter, and stay engaged in, that beleaguered punch line known as “Illinois politics”?

He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help. — A. Lincoln

Republican Rep. Tim Schmitz ’88 is the dean of the General Assembly’s “Viking caucus,” first elected to the Illinois House in 1998. But his inclination to public service started long before then. He pulled weekend shifts as a Batavia firefighter even when he was a college student, and has continued now into his 29th year as a paid on-call member of the department.

From the left, Rep. Tim Schmitz '88, Sen. Sue Schipper '84 Rezin and Sen. Dan Duffy '88.

After Augustana and a stint as a staffer with then House Minority Leader Lee Daniels, Schmitz was asked by Batavia’s mayor to serve on the city’s planning commission. When his alderman retired, Schmitz ran for the council unopposed. Four years later, he made the jump to the Statehouse.

A highlight for Schmitz has been his work with Safe Kids Illinois, which among other things partners with fire departments around the state to help teach parents how to properly install car seats. “When my kids were little, I took them to the State Fair and at a booth there learned my own seats weren’t properly installed—and I’m in public safety!” he recalled. It took two years to pass legislation that helps provide for certified instructors, but now they can be found all over the state.

On the other end of the spectrum was the impeachment of Rod Blagojevich. “It was just sad,” said Schmitz. “Everyone wanted him to resign, but he wouldn’t. Nobody wanted to go through the impeachment, but I found the process very interesting to be part of.”

And despite the frustrations, service in Springfield remains a passion for Schmitz. “I’m part of the group that came in when Illinois had extra money, and now we’ve got $9 billion in unpaid bills. Even though we’re in the minority party, we’ve had the opportunity to make an impact, like applying analytical measures to spending. Things have changed gradually, but we’re getting there.”

I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. — A. Lincoln

“I never thought I’d get involved in elected politics,” said Republican Sen. Sue Schipper ’84 Rezin, but a willingness to work hard and a good ear for the door-knocks of opportunity make her a natural. Both traits were passed down by her mother, who went to school at night at both Black Hawk College and Augustana, then went from teacher to superintendent before retiring with a doctorate in education.

After Sue’s husband, Keith Rezin ’82, finished medical school, they started a family and built up a medical practice. By 2010, the kids were older, and Rezin found herself selected as a fellow in the Lincoln Series, a yearlong program for conservative women covering public speaking, ethics and healthy doses of networking.

“The light-bulb moment came when I was shadowing Sen. Pamela Althoff in Springfield,” Rezin remembers. “After following her around all day, I thought, ‘I know these issues.’”

Rezin spent the next 14 months knocking on doors, and wound up beating an eight-year incumbent for a House seat. Before she was even seated, her district’s state senator retired. “It wasn’t on my radar at all, but when a door opens, you have to recognize the opportunity.” When she stood for election last fall, hers was the only targeted Senate campaign that survived. But even that is no reason to take her foot off the gas: Rezin has a large district that covers seven counties, and she’s constantly on the go visiting with constituents and listening to concerns.

I have never had a policy; I have just tried to do my best each and every day. — A. Lincoln

To say Dan Duffy ’88 has taken an interesting route to his Senate seat would be an understatement. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, football—and two older siblings—helped lead him to Augustana. After graduation, building a business was practically expected, since out of 11 children in the Duffy family, eight have been small business owners.

While public service now takes first priority, the Republican senator has maintained his belief in small business owners and their ability to create jobs. He’s also kept up his ties to his old neighborhood. Even though his district is in the northwest suburbs, he does regular listening tours of the South Side near his old haunts at 95th and Ashland.

“I call myself a ‘rational Republican,’ and I agree with the [largely Democratic] Black Caucus on about 70 percent of the issues in the Legislature,” Duffy said. And he credits some of his Augustana mentors with his ability to see through the shorthand of Springfield labels. “Dr. Tom Donnelly [business administration] and Chad Meyer [speech communication] taught me that there are always two sides to every coin, and it’s good to take a look from a different perspective.”

Duffy didn’t spend all of his time on campus with Donnelly and Meyer: in addition to earning three national championship rings as a member of the football team, he met his wife, Kris Jahnke ’89 Duffy here.

Ann Schotka ’82 Schneider received appointment as Illinois Secretary of Transportation in 2011.

As our case is new, we must think and act anew. — A. Lincoln

Not all of the Vikings in state government are in the legislative branch. Ann Schotka ’82 Schneider was named Secretary of Transportation in 2011 by Governor Pat Quinn after a successful stint as interim leader of the department. Prior to that, Schneider had held positions in the Comptroller’s Office, the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Natural Resources—the last of these while fellow Augustana grad Joel Brunsvold ’64 served as its director.

But from the beginning of her tenure with the Department of Transportation, she’s been impressed with the team. “It’s a very professional organization—engineers, engineering technicians, accounting professionals…everyone taking pride in our work,” Schneider said.

“Transportation is the foundation for our economic opportunity in Illinois. And we’re now starting to take a more holistic look at what we do, with greater emphasis on multimodal systems over highway-only.”

One facet of this new direction that’s of particular interest to Augustana and the Quad Cities is the return of passenger rail service to Chicago, expected in 2015. While being interviewed for this story, Schneider gave a glimpse into her inner wonk, spontaneously listing each of the steps needed to keep the project on target.

This kind of fastidious attention to detail is something each of these alumni has in common. That and a desire to overcome the bad rap Illinois government now gets. “Unfortunately, media like to focus on the negative stories, since they’re so much more dynamic,” Schneider said. “But 98 percent of the people I work with in state government are hardworking, dedicated and anxious to make a difference.”

Sen. Duffy said he hopes more of his fellow alumni will consider public service for the honorable profession that it is. “If we can get more young people involved, we might be able to turn this state around,” he said.

And hopefully, if more Vikings make the trek to Springfield, they’ll find Rep. Schmitz among those waiting to welcome them. “It’s not like I can’t wait to leave my family for a week away from home,” he said, “but if the day comes when I’m heading down Capitol Drive and the dome comes into view and I don’t get goose bumps, it’ll be time to move on.”

Kai Swanson