Bringing Passion For The Issues To Congress

Students of contemporary Middle East politics generally believe that if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak passes the presidency of Egypt on to son Gamel while still in power, the succession will occur smoothly. But if the elder Mubarak leaves power without putting his heir in place, the younger Mubarak’s succession is no sure thing.

So it was in Illinois’ 14th District. Had 22-year Rep. and former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert earlier tapped his son Ethan to succeed him in ’08, the younger Hastert would have waltzed through the Republican primary and general election. Instead, Denny Hastert just resigned his seat in ’08 and a bitter Republican primary—plus the growing aura around presidential hopeful and Illinoisan Barack Obama—helped make Obama Democrat Bill Foster the upset winner of a nationally watched special election.

Last year, 31-year-old Ethan Hastert became a candidate. But his now-private-citizen father could no longer wield the levers he did as congressman. And “Team Hastert” had not reckoned on the candidacy of State Sen. Randy Hultgren, one of the premier conservative battlers in Springfield.

At 44, Hultgren’s years of helping conservative candidates in the political trenches and causes in the legislature had won him a
dedicated grass-roots following. Working out of a storefront on Main Street in St. Charles (“Yes, we really had a storefront headquarters”), Hultgren mobilized hundreds of eager volunteers. They held coffees, licked envelopes, made phone calls and accompanied the candidate in parades. With backing from both traditional conservative activists and many from the newer Tea Party movement, Hultgren defeated Hastert in the February primary.

“And Ethan could not have been more of a gentleman,” Hultgren later told me, recalling how Hastert not only endorsed him the night of the primary, but promptly joined his campaign finance committee.

Turning his sights on Foster (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 4%), Hultgren vigorously spelled out his own conservative agenda: smaller government, more accountability and putting people back to work.

“Voters were fed up with the huge expansion of government that had begun under Obama and that my opponent had voted for,” said Hultgren. On November 2, it wasn’t even close, as he defeated Foster by 51% to 45%.

A small-town lawyer like Lincoln, Bethel College (Minn.) graduate Hultgren has had a string of unbroken successes in office-seeking: Elected to the DuPage County Board at 28, he went on to serve eight years in the state house of representatives and then four years in the state senate.

Political opponents have taken to deriding Hultgren as a “career pol” and “chronic campaigner.” But the characterization is unfair. In all offices, the Illinoisan has shown a passion for issues: from the lawsuit abuse reform that put a cap on the amount of damages (“This was way out of control in our state”) to denying state tax dollars for abortion. In addition, Hultgren was an early co-sponsor of S.B. 600, to give the choice of Republican state committee members back to registered party members rather than simply to local party committees.

Now he brings his passion for issues to Congress.

“Right Now, We’re Just Feeding the Beast”

Like the other 84 Republican House freshmen who took office last week, Randy Hultgren is asked increasingly whether he will vote to raise the debt ceiling or risk a shutdown of the federal government.

“I can’t see myself voting for that [raising the debt ceiling],” Hultgren told me, noting his record as a fiscal “skinflint” in every office he has held. “No, not unless there are some dramatic cuts in spending and we put entitlements on the table. But we can’t continue to live the way we are—no way. Right now, we’re just feeding the beast.”

I asked the inevitable follow-up question: Just where would he make these “dramatic cuts?”

“Certainly there are easy cuts,” Hultgren replied, “and they are spelled out in studies by groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Citizens Against Government Waste. And we should look hard at an across-the-board cut in government spending, such as that taken by Congress for its expenses. But the biggest threat is the cost of Medicare and the entire program has to be looked at and reformed.”

The new lawmaker went on to cite the recent trail blazed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has is pursuing the reduction or complete elimination of 164 government programs to deal with his country’s record deficit.

“It’s pretty amazing that the United Kingdom is leading the way for the world on cutting debt,” Hultgren says. “We should watch what the Cameron government is doing. But the best guideline for a smaller and less costly government is to get back to the Constitution of the United States.”

Hultgren hopes to be in the forefront of the coming battle to repeal the controversial healthcare bill passed by Congress when the Democrats were in charge last year. As he put it, “I hope we have the votes to repeal, but if we don’t, we have to settle in for a long hard fight to defund it piece by piece—and to offer positive new measures, such as medical malpractice reform and permitting the purchase of healthcare insurance across state lines.”

Randy Hultgren freely admits, “I don’t have all the answers.” but, as he has in every position he has held, he says,, “I intend to learn all I can to come up with the right answers.”

And in so doing, he is sure bring a passion for issues to the process.