The 112th Congress will conclude on Jan. 3, 2013, and with it the distinguished congressional career of U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, of Belleville.
With less than a month left in his 13th term, it is worth reflecting on his 24 years of elected service in Congress. I was privileged to be among the first staff members present at the beginning of Costello's congressional career, when he was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives in August 1988 at age 38.
He was sent to Washington via a special summer election to fill the seat of U.S. Rep. Melvin Price, whose more than four decades of service in the House ended with his death.
A well-known candidate, given his eight years as head of the St. Clair County Board, Costello overcame a $1 million negative advertising barrage by the national Republican Party, which was determined to pick up a seat in the wake of weak support for the Democratic national ticket that year. He won by a few percentage points but would never again have to face that close a race.
Southwestern Illinois was strongly represented by area Democrats in 1988, with then-U.S. Reps. Dick Durbin (a boyhood classmate of Costello's from their hometown, East St. Louis) and Kenneth Gray as well as U.S. Sens. Alan J. Dixon and Paul Simon. Throughout the years, Illinois lost population, its congressional delegation in Washington shrank and Congress turned more Republican. Costello's moderate policy views and ability to work in a bipartisan fashion served him and his district well.
Complementing his regional Democratic ties to leaders such as Richard Gephardt, of Missouri, Costello struck up strong working relationships with Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, both Illinois Republicans. He partnered with GOP members from nearby states, such as Bill Emerson, of Missouri, and Jimmy Duncan, from Tennessee, on important local economic issues.
His voting record has reflected the political spectrum of those he represents: he has voted consistently pro-life and pro-labor; for military service personnel and veterans but against military interventionism in Iraq; and for spending on the social safety net while endorsing a balanced budget amendment.
His "yes" votes on the Clinton budget of 1993 and the Obama Affordable Care Act of 2010 helped provide the narrow margin of victory that codified the nation's first budget surplus in two generations, and move the U.S. toward universal health care access. Meanwhile, he voted for the Americans with Disabilities law put forth by President George H.W. Bush and to protect the Second Amendment under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
And, unlike most members of Congress, he and his family remained in Illinois throughout his terms. Twice-weekly airplane flights back and forth to Washington, D.C., meant he had time for hundreds of town hall meetings during weekends to meet with his constituents and hear their concerns.
It also kept him close to the changing nature of his district. In a region once populated by thriving stockyards, steel mills, breweries and coal mines, Costello used his seat to help the district adjust to a new era, modernizing the area's infrastructure. MetroLink light rail, major new highways and bridges near and across the Mississippi River, and expansion of Scott Air Force Base all bear his hallmark. This former inner-city police officer also became a staunch defender of Illinois farmers and small businesses, and protected money for higher education, worker re-training and clean energy research.
There were those who wanted him to stay in office as long as his predecessor, or use procedural levers to hand over the seat to his son, now a respected elected official in his own right. Instead, having felt he accomplished what he set out to do, he leaves on his own terms. Consulting only with his family, he announced his resignation early enough to allow the voters to pick his successor. He steps down as the dean of the Illinois Congressional Delegation.
What impressed me in my years at his side was his evident satisfaction in representing where he was born and raised, and having an effect on the people who lived there. He enjoyed the Collinsville horseradish festivals and Belleville St. Patrick's Day parties much more than the Beltway social scene.
And when the voting was done, he'd rush to the Washington airport to catch the commercial flight back home to spend that evening with his wife, kids and grandkids.
One of his Madison County constituents used to write a letter to him every two weeks, like clockwork, just to say hello. Costello had, at a point in time, attended the funeral of the man's father, and the man never forgot it. Just as Costello never forgot when former Madison County Chairman Nelson Hagnauer, in a display of political respect, attended Costello's father's own funeral. Their friendship soothed the historical friction between St. Clair and Madison counties, and together they became strong allies in moving the region forward.
Costello now contemplates life after Congress. He knows better than others that public service has its place, but it is not always meant to be a lifetime occupation. While he can look around and be proud of what his service has contributed to the region, I have no doubt his commitment to his family, friends and the place where he grew up will continue.
Brian Lott worked for U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello in Washington, D.C., from 1988 to 2000, serving as his chief of staff for 10 years.