If there is a theme that defines Jerry Costellos nearly quarter-century in the U.S. House of Representatives, perhaps its best summed up in two words: reaching across.
As in Costello, the moderate Democrat from Belleville, reaching across the aisle, time and again, to work with House Republicans to help fund big-ticket projects that have forever changed the face of the metro-east.
But reaching across signifies another meaning for Costellos 24 years in Congress reaching across the Mississippi River to work with Missouri leaders, binding the bistate region together for the common good.
His fingerprints are all over, said Jim Pennekamp, the former executive director of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois.
Costello, 63, retired last week from the U.S. House after more than two decades of service. Bill Enyart, a longtime Belleville lawyer and a Democrat, was sworn in Thursday, marking the first time in nearly a quarter century that someone other than Costello is representing the 12th District.
To get a sense of how far Costellos influence reaches across Southern Illinois, take an elevator to the top floor of one of the tallest buildings that comprise the St. Louis skyline, then look eastward.
Upriver you see the faint outline of the Clark Bridge in Alton. Costello secured federal dollars that made possible the nearly $100 million stay-cabled span, which opened in 1994. Downriver you notice the twin 400-foot towers rising from the river just east of the Edward Jones Dome. The towers are destined to support the $670 million Mississippi River bridge and Interstate 70 realignment set to open next year. Costello secured the $239 million federal appropriation that made the project possible.
As you gaze eastward, you will likely hear the steel-against-steel rumble and rattle of a MetroLink train shuttling commuters across the 138-year-old Eads Bridge. Were it not for Costellos behind-thescenes lobbying, the 20-year-old MetroLinks nearly $500 million initial phase three-fourths of which came from the federal government would not have happened.
Finally, looking past Belleville, you might make out the tiny figure of a KC-135 Air Force tanker lazily circling above Scott Air Force Base. If not for Costello, the air base the metro-easts biggest economic engine by far might have been shut down through several Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, proceedings, and the adjacent $316 million MidAmerica St. Louis Airport might never have been built.
Costello provided the leadership in both Missouri and Illinois on these infrastructure projects, particularly things like MetroLink and the Mississippi River bridges, said Pennekamp, who worked closely with Costello on these projects, those things that link the two states together. Basically, he saw the need to reach across the Mississippi River and work with legislators in Missouri to get things done.
Costello accomplished those goals because hes a workhorse, not a show horse, said U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, whos worked with Costello for 16 years on metro-east projects. He did his job representing his district, and traveling around his district, and knowing his district.
Quarter century of service
A powerful sense of nostalgia pervaded Costellos field office in a Belleville strip mall in early December. Rows of cardboard boxes stuffed with papers letters, case files, reports lined the walls of almost every room in the office suite.
Just days before leaving office, Costello would cast his last vote as a congressman. In a fitting tribute to the polarization and rancor that wrack the U.S. House and the extraordinary efforts it takes nowadays to bridge the partisan divide Costello voted on Tuesday night to approve a measure that ended a months-long stalemate over the federal budget, averting the socalled fiscal cliff.
During a lengthy interview in his district office as his time as a congressman was winding down, Costello denied that his decision to retire, announced in early October 2011, stemmed from any particular issues, such as problems working with Republican members of Congress.
Instead, Costello attributed his decision to a combination of things that included the desire to spend more time with his wife Georgia, three grown children and grandchildren.
You reach a point in life where you say, Is my mission done here and are there other things I want to do? he said. Frankly, Im satisfied with what Ive been able to do for the last 24-and-a-half years in Congress. Now I want to do some other things.
Costello declined to be specific about his plans, but promised to let the public know what his new career path will be when he makes up his mind.
Still, Costello made it clear he missed the days of bi-partisanship and camaraderie that defined the U.S. House when he arrived in 1988, after narrowly winning a special election to replace Mel Price, who died in office after holding the seat for 44 years.
Costello, who had grown up in East St. Louis, had risen steadily through St. Clair County Democratic Party ranks and had just come off a stint as chairman of the County Board.
As a congressman, Costello had a reputation for helping his constituents and coming home to the district often. He often made himself available to meet with constituents in Washington, D.C., and back home.
Comparing the U.S. House today with how it was then, the difference is night and day, said Costello, who easily won his re-election races, usually with more than 60 percent of votes cast.
In those days, then-President Ronald Reagan, a hero to conservatives, regularly met with House Speaker Thomas Tip ONeill, a liberal from Massachusetts, Costello recalled.
Ronald Reagan and Tip ONeill would sit at night and have a drink together and talk over at the White House, he said. They truly had major disagreements, but they could work their disagreements out.
Today, its a far different story, he said.
Compromise is not in the vocabulary of many of the members of Congress, Costello said. That is one reason we have seen many of the stalemates that weve had, both over increasing the debt limit as well as the fiscal cliff. ... People are dug in on both sides.
Liberals, mostly Democrats, stand on one side of the divide, while conservative Republicans, especially the anti-tax Tea Party members, stand on the other, Costello said.
Ive always said that if its a marriage or a business partnership, whatever it is, you have to compromise, he said. You cannot get your way every time. ... But when you come to the table saying, Im not going to be flexible, Im not going to entertain your ideas, my ideas are right and youre wrong, youre not going to accomplish anything.
Strong war opponent
Costello divides his accomplishments in Congress between national and local achievements.
On the national level, Costello points to his votes in 1991 and 2002, respectively, against resolutions authorizing the sending of U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf to push Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, and against the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator suspected of conspiring to arm terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.
During the 1991 vote, Costellos son, Jerry Costello II today a Illinois House member was an Army paratrooper, making Costello one of only three members of congress with a son serving on the front lines.
The issues underlying the 2002 vote on the Iraq invasion still agitate Costello. At the time of the vote, he said, inspectors were still in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction.
But then-President George W. Bush told the weapons inspectors to leave, and we in fact went in and took Saddam Hussein out, and later found out that there were no weapons of mass destruction, he said.
Costello said he feels proud of both votes, and that I actually voted the right way, he said.
Costello recalled seeing Condoleezza Rice, at the time President George W. Bushs national security adviser, on a Sunday talk show after the 2003 invasion, When it was apparent that we could not find weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons, he said. When Condoleezza Rice said that, Were going to democratize Iraq, I thought, Oh my God, what are they thinking? It would take two generations to do that.
Costello was a longtime chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee. He also served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Costello was considered by many to be a strong champion for improving roads and bridges.
A major highlight of his congressional career, he said, was serving on the House Budget Committee in 1993, during Bill Clintons first year as president.
When congress passed a balanced budget for the first time in almost a generation. That was the only time in the last 30 or 40 years that we had a balanced federal budget, he said. I played a major role in formulating the bill.
The 1993 vote on the budget bill was difficult and controversial, he said.
It passed the House by one vote. I always said it was my vote, Costello said. And there was a tie in the Senate. The vice president had to come in, Al Gore, and break that tie in order to pass that budget. And what happened? We had the best economy and the best run of an economy in over about an eight- or 10-year period. We reduced the debt and balanced the budget. In other words, we had more revenue coming in than spending at the time. It can be done now.
Helped save Scott
Of all Costellos local achievements as a congressman, the one that everyone agrees ranks as the most important including Costello was his role in mobilizing local support to save Scott Air Force Base in the 1990s and in the mid-2000s.
The end of the Cold War had made it clear that Congress needed to slash into its military spending budget. That conclusion led to the creation of the bipartisan BRAC Commission to determine which of dozens of military bases nationwide should go on the chopping block.
Pennekamp, the Leadership Council executive director at the time, recalled a meeting Costello presided over with metroeast leaders in the early 1990s.
Costello told the group, You know, Ive basically done a lot of what needs to be done in Washington, Pennekamp said. The community really needs to organize. And he suggested that the Leadership Council take a primary role in community organizing to support Scott Air Force Base, which we did. It was a very steep learning curve for us. But with the congressmans help, and a lot of support from the community, we were very successful in both the 1995 and 2005 rounds.
Before that point, however, Costello recognized that Scott was in trouble.
And the reason that it was is that I looked at the criteria being used by the Air Force to determine which bases would be at the top of the priority list and which would be at the bottom, he said.
One factor that seemed to hurt Scott was that it lacked a fighter wing, he said.
And after we got the local community involved, then we went and took a look at how we could improve our chances, he said. And frankly we convinced the Air Force to change the criteria. So that helped us greatly.
What helped turned the tide was a discussion he had with secretaries of both the Air Force and the Defense Department, he said. As a result of those discussions, We gave more validity to missions that were critical not only to our nation, but worldwide, he said. And that gave us a great good deal of credit having the Air Mobility command and the U.S. Transportation Command being here.
Because of these new criteria, Costello said, we were able, I think, to wake some people up both in the Pentagon and in Congress to say, Wait a minute, it shouldnt be just about a fighter wing. It should be about what are the critical components of getting the mission done. And they recognized that Scott played a critical role.
Despite these victories, Costello said no one should assume Scott will ever be immune from future cuts.
And in fact there is discussion in Washington, although not too many people will acknowledge this, of another BRAC looking at command bases, he said. And if thats the case, then of course well have to be on alert and be prepared to fight that fight, both local and state and federal officials.
Cited at Cueto trial
In May, one of Costellos closest boyhood friends died, closing a painful chapter in Costellos career that today he still declines to talk about publicly.
Amiel Cueto, 63, died after suffering from diabetes and cancer. Up until late 1990s, Cueto was a millionaire Belleville personal injury attorney and noted powerbroker in St. Clair County Democratic politics.
Cueto was convicted in 1997 in East St. Louis federal court of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in connection to a multimilliondollar video poker gambling ring operated by his client and business partner, Thomas Venezia. Cueto was sentenced to seven years and four months in federal prison, but ended up serving less than six years. The Illinois Supreme Court disbarred him in 2004.
In opening statements of Cuetos trial in April 1997, Assistant U.S. Attorney Miriam Miquelon said Costello was a previously undisclosed business partner of Cuetos and accused the congressman of being an unindicted co-conspirator.
Costello at the time, and subsequently since, denied any wrongdoing, or any involvement with Cueto or his criminal associates. Costello was never accused of misconduct or charged with any crime.
W. Charles Grace, the U.S. attorney at the time of the Cueto trial and Miquelons boss later acknowledged that Costello was never the target of his investigation and that his name was not supposed to come up during Cuetos trial.
A complex job
As he enters the next phase in his life, Costello had advice for his successor.
My advice to any freshman member of Congress is, This is a more complex job than anyone realizes until you get there, he said. And I think that Bill Enyart is realizing that now, just as every freshman who went through their orientation in the last few weeks. It is very complex.
All the easy problems that Congress faces have already been solved, Costello said.
The problems that Bill and others will confront are massive problems that have festered over a number of years, he said. And the expectations by the public are overwhelming. They believe its easy to solve these problems. And theyre not.
What are the toughest problems?
Here at home and frankly abroad, too, is the economy, he said. And Im concerned too about the budget deficit.
While Congress last week approved tax increases for the very rich and avoiding steep increases for the middle class, it put off tough decisions on spending cuts. But the budget deficit can be resolved, Costello said.
There is no reason for us to have a fiscal cliff, he said. What we need to do is have both sides sit down and look at what needs to be done. Because its pretty obvious what needs to be done. You need to generate more revenue and you have to reduce spending. And those are difficult decisions and politically unpopular. But difficult decisions have to be made.
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@ bnd.com or 618-239-2533.