BELLEVILLE — Bill Enyart likes to walk. A lot.
A dedicated backpacker, Enyart figures that he has, over the years, hiked about half the Appalachian Trail, which stretches about 2,100 miles from Maine to Georgia.
"I like to have a goal and I like to get to that goal," Enyart said. "So backpacking is very satisfying to me. I can get the maps out and figure out, 'OK, where are we going to go, how are we going to get there? How much food do we need?'"
Enyart, 63, has had little time lately to pursue his passion for woodland trails. A Belleville lawyer by trade, Enyart spent the last five years as the fulltime commander of the Illinois National Guard, retiring in June with the rank of major general.
Since then, he's been running full time as the Democratic nominee for the 12th Congressional District seat.
In this, his second run for public office -- the first was 30 years ago, when he ran unsuccessfully for Monroe County state's attorney -- Enyart has pursued a campaign strategy based on playing up his working-class roots and almost 30 years in the Illinois National Guard.
Enyart has sought to project an image as a moderate, pro-union, pro-coal, pro-Second Amendment Democrat determined to protect Medicare and Social Security from Republican attempts at privatization and budget-slashing.
In other words, a Democrat similar to the man he hopes to replace: U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, who is retiring after 24 years in office.
Costello, who has known Enyart for more than 25 years, said the retired major general would make an excellent successor, particularly when it comes to protecting Scott Air Force Base from budget cuts.
"He would have the inside track over members of Congress who do not have the (military) experience that he has when it comes to protecting and growing Scott Air Force Base," Costello said.
Enyart entered the 12th District race in early June, after Brad Harriman, the winner of the March Democratic primary, dropped out for health reasons.
Someone -- Enyart won't say who -- from the St. Clair County Democratic Party called and urged Enyart to run, he said. Until that time, serving in Congress "was not anything I dreamed of doing," he said.
Enyart said he was surprised he was being asked to run, because while he had been active in local community organizations, "I hadn't been a particular political figure."
In the months since, Enyart has focused on portraying himself as a protector of Medicare and Social Security. He also has announced plans for creating new jobs based on tax credits for manufacturers in areas with high unemployment and for small businesses that hire the unemployed.
These are the biggest issues he's hearing about from voters.
"I think the economy is the largest thing," he said. "There are a lot of concerns about Social Security, Medicare. There are concerns about tax fairness. Those are the hot topics."
Enyart was born in a U.S. Navy hospital in Pensacola, Fla., the son of a Navy firefighter. He grew up in central Illinois, where his father ended up working on the assembly line of a factory that built Caterpillar heavy vehicles.
Enyart first got to know the Belleville area in 1969, when he was stationed at Scott Air Force Base as a 19-year-old airman. After serving on Okinawa in support of the Vietnam War, Enyart attended school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, earning a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science.
He returned to Belleville in mid-1974 to work as an intern at the Belleville News-Democrat. Enyart was hired full-time in August 1974, covering sports, followed by the police and Belleville City Hall beats.
Why did he quit the journalism business in late 1975 to go to law school?
"Because I was a newspaper reporter and I was tired of being poor," he said.
After graduating from SIUC's School of Law, Enyart returned to the metro-east and set up shop as an attorney specializing in administrative law cases, specifically Social Security and Medicare benefit claims.
The practice of law made a good fit, he said.
"It's a pretty demanding business," Enyart said. "I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of it. I enjoy solving problems."
Enyart grinned when the subject came up of some recent TV ads paid for by Jason Plummer, the GOP nominee for the 12th District seat. The ads, shown in the Carbondale-Marion area, call Enyart "a millionaire trial lawyer."
Enyart called that description wrong.
"I wasn't a trial lawyer," he said. "If you asked the trial lawyers around here, they'd say, 'What?'"
Nonetheless, Enyart has done well for himself. While he has focused on Plummer's personal wealth and challenged him to release his personal tax returns, Enyart lists personal assets of between $1 million and $2.5 million, according to his personal disclosure report filed with the U.S. House.
Serving his country
Enyart retired from his law practice five years ago when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed him to the guard's top position, which carries the official title of director of the Illinois Department of Military Affairs. Gov. Pat Quinn reappointed Enyart in 2011.
He spent a week in December 2008 visiting guard units and training centers across Afghanistan. He didn't come under fire, but, "You knew you were in a war zone when you went outside," he said. "You had on your Kevlar, you had your weapon, you wore your ballistic eyewear."
He visited Afghanistan right before Christmas, "and the thing that surprised me was how many cookies there were," he said. "There were more cookies and candy and cakes than you could shake a stick at."
Also in 2008, Enyart oversaw National Guard flood relief operations on the lower Mississippi River. Unlike other states hit by severe flooding, "We did not have any loss of life in Illinois," he said.
In his role as state national guard commander, Enyart also developed close ties with the nation of Poland.
On the home front
Enyart and his wife, Annette Eckert, a retired St. Clair County circuit judge, are the parents of two grown sons, James, 40, and Alex, 26, in Belleville.
For the past 27 years, Enyart and his wife have lived in a stately, two-story brick house on a brick-lined street in one of the historic neighborhoods near Belleville's downtown.
Brent Gaines, a Belleville attorney who apprenticed under Enyart several years ago, said Enyart's understanding of federal laws and procedures would make him an excellent member of Congress. And Enyart's years as a lawyer, coupled with his perseverance, provide excellent preparation for dealing with members of a legislative body mired in partisanship, Gaines said.
"As an attorney, pretty much your entire job is dealing with an obstinate party, whether it's an opposing counsel or whatnot," he said. "There's always someone that you're fighting against that you obviously have to maintain a proper level of decorum and respect with in order to get somewhere."
Before joining the bench, Annette Eckert practiced law with her husband for eight years at their law office on South Second Street.
"We joke about in our family that Bill always has his nose in a book or in a newspaper. He reads everything," Eckert said.
Her husband is fascinated by history and current events, a pair of interests "that I think prepares him for the difficult times that he or anybody in Congress is going to have," she said. "I think it's important to know history before you try to craft the future."
Getting it done
Enyart has received high praise for his work as the state National Guard adjutant general.
Tammy Duckworth got to know Enyart during her tenure five years ago as secretary of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
At the time, Duckworth wanted to implement a new protocol that would require all Illinois National Guard members coming back from a combat deployment to be screened for post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.
Duckworth, while serving as an officer in the Illinois National Guard in 2004, lost her left leg below the knee and her right leg at the hip when Iraqi insurgents shot down the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting.
The U.S. Department of Defense resisted Duckworth's proposal for mandatory screening.
"I wasn't making much headway because of the DOD policy," she said. "And I went to General Enyart, and I said, 'I think it's important, but it's not going to be popular with the troops.'"
Enyart "just basically said, 'This is the right thing to do, and we're going to do it,'" said Duckworth, the Democratic nominee for the Illinois 8th Congressional District, south of Chicago. "And because of that, Illinois became the very first state in the country to have 100 percent mandatory screening for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury of all its guardsmen and guardswomen who were coming home."
Enyart acknowledged the polarized mood in the House would present a challenge if voters send him to Capitol Hill.
But he draws encouragement from his experiences as the Illinois National Guard commander, a role that led him to work with Democrats and Republicans in the Illinois General Assembly.
"I think it's a matter of showing people you're doing the right things for the right reasons," he said. "I would certainly hope that after this election there'd be a little more effort by both parties to work together and get things accomplished."