SPRINGFIELD — The metro-east's two new representatives in the Illinois House are starkly different.
One is a cattle farmer, completely new to the state Capitol.
The other isn't a newcomer to Springfield at all, having previously served 20 years in the House. He has no livestock, but with a history of bringing goodies back to the metro-east, it might be fair to call him a pork producer.
The farmer is Charlie Meier, an Okawville Republican. His previous experience in governing includes serving on the Washington County Board.
"This is a heck of a change for me," Meier said. "They tell me it's crazy."
The returning legislator is Jay Hoffman, a Belleville Democrat. Hoffman, formerly of Collinsville, lost an election to Republican challenger Dwight Kay in November 2010, but after legislative redistricting he was able to run in November in the 113th House District, where he now resides.
"In the past, I've been able to work very hard to get infrastructure projects that put people to work, and I want to be sure I'm on committees that are able to continue to do that," Hoffman said. "The good news is, I don't have to learn the ropes, and will be given priority in committee assignments based on seniority. I'm looking to be on committees that are important to our area."
Where the pair stand in the pecking order of the House was evident Wednesday, during the swearing-in ceremony for state representatives. On the Democrat side of the stage, Hoffman's assigned seat was in the front row, among senior representatives and just a few chairs away from Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. Meier's seat, on the Republican side, was in the back row.
With Democrats holding a supermajority in the House, like they do in the Senate, Meier knows it won't be easy to have a big effect.
"I might get trampled on," Meier said. "But I've been run over before, and I've always gotten back up."
He added: "I'm learning a lot. It's amazing how much there is to learn, and it's not something you're going to learn in a few months. You're just kind of thrown into it, and you learn as you go."
Meier said he attended a seminar for new legislators. It was conducted by a research arm of the legislature and featured presentations by college professors.
Not all the seminar sat well with Meier, including a part where a professor spoke of "the evils" of coal.
"I come from a county where coal is huge. We built a new school with the money from a coal mine and the power plant that we have now, and we're building a new courthouse the same way. We have 500 permanent jobs because of the coal and power plants. You cannot tell me that coal is evil," Meier said.
"And then they started in on gasoline, that we should be more like Europe, and have a big tax on gasoline," he added. "I told them our families left Europe to come to America. Europe's broke."
Meier said he was encouraged, though, that other freshman representatives -- from both parties and from across the state -- realize the state is in a financial mess.
"Even people from the collar counties, they said the word 'cuts.' Will that happen, or will they get up there and just keep wanting to do more tax increases and new programs? It'll be interesting to see if they want to hold to that belief," Meier said.
Meier, 53, is a bachelor with a long, wide history of community involvement -- everything from 4-H and Jaycees to the Washington County Board. He has hired a full-time hand to help with the farm, so he can devote his attention to being a legislator. He said relatives also will be helping with the farm.
He likes antiques and enjoys showing family heirlooms in the farmhouse. He grew up in the house, which was built by his great-grandparents. When she was a teenager in the early 1900s, his grandmother used a team of mules to drag logs from the nearby river bottoms. The logs were cut into lumber for building the house.
The large, two-story house is the pride of his grain and livestock farm. The house and its lawn are used for family reunions, weddings, Christmas strolls, community functions, benefits -- even his campaign fundraiser.
"It's the middle of a working farm. You'll find straw in here, you'll find some cow manure in here occasionally, when you come running in fast or something," Meier said. "When we were farrowing hogs, we'd have piglets on the registers to warm them up."
Meier, who has no college degree, said common sense is what Springfield needs. He said it's difficult to believe that legislators just finished another session without reforming the state pension systems covering government workers, which are underfunded by about $96 billion.
"When we're supposed to be taking care of the pension problem, we're worried about gay marriage and gun bans," he said.
Meier said other area legislators, including Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, Rep. Mike Bost and Rep. John Cavaletto, have been helping him. Meier said he got a taste of what it will be like to speak on the House floor, when he spoke recently at a rally in the Capitol building. The rally was part of an effort to keep open the Warren G. Murray Developmental Center in Springfield, which Gov. Pat Quinn wants to close so that its residents can reside in community-based settings.
"It was very emotional for me," Meier said. "I thought it was very fitting, that the first time I got to speak in the Capitol, I was speaking for the residents of Murray Center and their families."
He said his first bill will be one that seeks a review of what has happened to former residents of the state mental health facilities that Quinn is closing. Meier said it appears that many former residents are simply ending up in other state facilities.
Meier has opened a legislative office in Highland, and said he hopes constituents feel free to call him or visit.
"I've had a lot of people tell me they're amazed that I called them back after they left a message," Meier said. "I plan to stay 'Charlie' to everybody."
He said some Springfield people were shocked to learn that he personally moved the furniture he bought from former Rep. Paul Evans, R-O'Fallon, to the Highland office. "I said, 'well, who else is going to move it?'"
Meier's Highland office is on the square, in an old store that is about 120 years old and has a tin ceiling.
"It's never going to be fancy," he said, "but that's me."
HOFFMAN: SENIORITY COUNTS
With his 20 years of service in the House, Hoffman is among that chamber's most senior members. Now 51, he was first elected to the House when he was 28.
"Under the House rules, the years you have spent in the House count toward your seniority. For issues of committee assignments and that nature, you have seniority over others," Hoffman said.
Madigan will make committee assignments during the next couple of weeks.
"I'm hopeful. For years, I was chairman of the House Transportation Committee. I'm hopeful that I'll be chairman of a committee. Whether it'll be that committee, I don't know," Hoffman said.
It might be telling, though, that when Madigan on Wednesday announced leaders of his Democratic caucus, Hoffman was not among them. During the administration of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Hoffman served in the House as a floor leader for the governor. Blagojevich often feuded with Madigan, which, by extension, put Hoffman at odds with Madigan.
Hoffman has said he knew nothing of Blagojevich's misdeeds and has never been accused of wrongdoing himself. Hoffman has said he and Madigan "don't always agree" on things, but that's part of being a downstate legislator.
"While Chicago and that area, the legislators up there, are trying to bring all the money to Chicago, you have to stand up and fight for this area, and when you do that, sometimes there's confrontation within your own party," Hoffman said during the campaign. "The speaker of the House is the speaker of the House, and you have to respect that, but you don't back down when you're fighting for your area, and that sometimes will cause some friction."
Hoffman's relationship with the former governor helped him secure projects for the metro-east, including a new Mississippi River bridge.
Hoffman said his effectiveness has been due in part to being able to work with Republicans, such as former Sen. Frank Watson, of Greenville.
"We passed bill after bill, project after project, to help the entire metro-east," he said. "What I plan to do, or I hope I'm able to do, is work across the aisle, with all regions of the state, to put the bickering aside and resolve the problems that the state is facing."
Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at University of Illinois at Springfield, said: "Obviously Hoffman has connections and relationships with interest groups, with other House members, with people in agencies, so he's certainly effective, there's no question about that. But what type of relationship he builds with the speaker, or doesn't build, is going to be critical in terms of him having influence."
Redfield said Madigan "has a long memory." And with Democrats having a 71-seat super-majority in the House, Madigan probably won't have to court his individual members for their votes.
"If you had 61 Democrats, every Democrat would be in a position to be a deciding vote," Redfield said.
Hoffman is a graduate of Illinois State University, with a degree in finance, and Saint Louis University School of Law. He is married with two children.
He said his strong suit as a legislator is constituent service.
"I think it's very important that your local office be one that is accessible, and ensures that if there are issues in the district, that it can help solve them, whether it's cutting through bureaucracy or providing funding for needed projects that create jobs and economic development," Hoffman said. "When you interact with the people of your district, that's where the rubber meets the road."
Hoffman's district office is in the same location as the one that was used by former Rep. Tom Holbrook, D-Belleville.
Hoffman has represented parts of the 113th District in the past, but about two-thirds of it is new territory for him. He has hired Ann Reinhardt, who worked in Holbrook's district office for 18 years.
"I wanted to make sure I had someone with the experience, who knew the entire district," Hoffman said.
He said the state's financial condition is the most pressing issue for state legislators during the next few years.
"It's making difficult budget decisions, making long-term financial planning decisions that are going to get our fiscal house in order. There are all types of bills you can pass, but I think the budget and financial shape of the state are going to overshadow everything," he said. "I believe I'll be able to bring experience to bear, at a time of very difficult issues that we're facing."
Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2511.