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Against history

This election will determine whether Republicans keep control
of the U.S. House, and whether Speaker J. Dennis Hastert
will get a third term. The past isn™t promising

by Lynn Sweet

La Colline is a restaurant a few blocks from the Capitol, a popular place for political fundraisers. On one July morning, about 40 lobbyists show up to breakfast with U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and write checks to his leadership fund.

Hastert arrives a few minutes after 8 a.m. with a security detail and Mike Stokke, his chief political deputy, who is a former Illinois GOP state central committeeman. As the lobbyists dine on eggs Benedict, Hastert, given to massive understatement, admits it’s been an “interesting time” since he became speaker almost four years ago.

He serves up a story about how he has to get up as early as 5:15 on the mornings he has a 7 a.m. White House meeting with President George W. Bush. The four congressional leaders started having weekly breakfasts with the president after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Hastert says he grabbed a suit one morning and didn’t realize until he was dressed that he had put on his tuxedo. It’s a benign self-deprecating yarn. Then Hastert moves on to more serious matters: herding cats in the House.

“With a five-vote margin, all you have to do is make four or five people unhappy and you can’t get anything done,” the Republican leader says. “The hard part of this job is just to govern, with a small g.”

Now Hastert faces another challenge. The November election will determine whether his party will continue to control the House, and whether Hastert, 60, will get a third term as speaker. But the former Yorkville history teacher is running against history.

He’s doing everything he can — raising millions for GOP House candidates at hundreds of events such as the La Colline breakfast — to avoid a repeat of this fact: The party out of power in the White House has picked up seats in every president’s first midterm election except 1934. The Republicans control the House by a narrow margin, so voters in just a few districts could topple Hastert and clear the way for House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri to become speaker.

Hastert can’t rest on star power. He’s big and beefy — think John Goodman or John Madden — but most people couldn’t pick Hastert, who is third in succession to the White House — out of a lineup. “I’ve seen polling,” says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “He is not well-known. He has never been well-known, and maybe that is why people trust him. He is content to play behind the scenes.”

“This is a fickle business,” says Hastert a few weeks after the fundraising breakfast. “The most important issue in this business is getting your message out back home.” The November outcome “really depends on what happens with the economy and a lot of things, and really what people are thinking two weeks before the election. I think we have a good message to talk about.”

Though there are 435 members in the House and all the seats are up, only about 40 districts are in play for the 2002 elections. (The marquee race in Illinois pits two incumbents against each other: Republican John Shimkus of Collinsville and Democrat David Phelps of Eldorado). Hastert talks through the vulnerable list fluidly. His August campaign fundraising calendar put him on the road for three weeks in more than 20 critical districts in 12 states, all west of the Mississippi.

Key to control of the House in 2002 =is money, and Hastert is an energetic fundraiser. His political operation works in concert with the White House political office and the GOP campaign committees. Between January and July, Hastert has stumped in 28 districts in 24 states, raising $7 million for GOP candidates. In 2001, Hastert headlined 227 events in 26 states, covering 49 districts. During the 1999-2000 cycle — Hastert’s first term as speaker — he campaigned for 126 House candidates in 36 states, making, all told, 655 events and collecting about $20 million.

“I think that is my responsibility, =my political responsibility, to help members to get elected, to find good candidates and to support those candidates,” says Hastert. “Other speakers in other parliaments don’t take a political position. But this is a political position, so I have a dual responsibility.”

Hastert’s spacious office in the Capitol is part of a suite of grand, high-ceiling rooms. When the flashy Newt Gingrich was speaker, the conference room in the complex was dubbed the “Dinosaur Room” because that’s where Gingrich mounted the skull of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Under Hastert’s reign, the place has been renamed the “Lincoln Room,” an apt tribute from an Illinois speaker.

Hastert’s office is full of memorabilia, from model cars — an auto buff, he owns nine antique cars, including a pickup truck and two fire engines — to African art, with a scepter from Kenya. There is a statue of a fox on the prowl in front of the fireplace, a connection to Hastert’s home overlooking the Fox River.

On a coffee table is a picture book of Luxembourg, where Hastert’s grandfather was born, and another book featuring photos of Illinois landscapes. In a corner, there is a polyester baseball shirt — size XXL — that says “Coach Hastert,” signed by GOP House members. Hastert is a former wrestling coach who tries to arrange his schedule so he can attend the annual NCAA wrestling tournament. His small desk is in front of a window looking out over the National Mall and the Washington Monument.

John Dennis Hastert — everyone calls him Denny — grew up in Oswego, the eldest of three sons of Naomi and Jack. Hastert’s dad operated a feed store before he started running restaurants.

Hastert attended North Central College in Naperville, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, and transferred to the Christian evangelical Wheaton College, where he graduated in 1964.

He taught history and government at Yorkville High School and along the way picked up a master’s degree at Northern Illinois University. He married Jean, now a retired elementary school gym teacher, in 1973.

He’s managed to clear a path for his sons in Washington, too.

Joshua, 27, the oldest, in 1999 ran a record label and record store in DeKalb known locally as Seven Dead Arson, a name inspired by a news headline. After Hastert became speaker, Joshua moved to Washington and became a lobbyist, one of the rare ones who work the Capitol with a pierced ear. This summer, Joshua Hastert was named a principal member of the lobbying firm Federal Legislative Associates.

Joshua Hastert says his father has not changed much as speaker. He says key to his father’s style is “making sure everyone’s side is heard.”

His younger brother Ethan, 24, just wrapped up a stint as an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and is now at Northwestern University’s law school.

Cheney and Hastert know each other from Cheney’s House days, and the two went fly fishing last year in Wyoming. Hastert, says Cheney in an e-mail, is “only a mediocre fly fisherman.” Hastert agrees. “Fly fishing takes a lot of skill and a lot of time and a lot of patience. In bass fishing, you just lay the bait out there and wait for a big old fish to hit it.” This is Hastert’s approach to cutting a deal to pass a bill, to get something done.

“The last two years would’ve been far more difficult and much less productive had it not been for the speaker of the House,” says Cheney.

Hastert enjoys a solid relationship with Bush. “I think he trusts me when I give advice.” The president teased him about his weight when the four congressional leaders met after July 4. The needling seems to get to Hastert. Bush asked Hastert if he was in some holiday parades. The trim Bush, winking at the others, asked, “Did you walk?”

“He is always giving me a jab about that,” Hastert says. “I don’t say anything.”

Hastert is a diabetic who is supposed to watch his diet. He injects himself daily with insulin in the thigh.

The road to Washington, D.C., started in Springfield for Hastert, with his 1980 election to the Illinois General Assembly. After three terms, he won a congressional seat in 1986. He managed Tom DeLay’s campaign for House Whip in 1994 and became the Texas Republican’s chief deputy.

The speaker’s job was thrust upon Hastert on December 19, 1998, on a frantic Saturday when House members came to work thinking the main item on their agenda was the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

The flamboyant and controversial Gingrich, then House speaker, was quitting, and his designated replacement, Bob Livingston, sent shockwaves through the chamber when he announced his resignation without mentioning the affair that forced his hand.

DeLay, a combative personality with a long list of detractors, decided not to run for speaker, a role Hastert would have supported. With DeLay’s backing, and after a six-hour blitz, Hastert, to the outside world an obscure lawmaker but in reality a consummate insider, lined up the votes to become speaker. He was scandal-free, a conservative who could build a bridge to the GOP moderates — and a coach. He was just what the frazzled and demoralized Republican team needed.

“He’s been effective from Day One,” says GOP lobbyist Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman. “He’s done well. He’s a perfect guy for the time.”

Hastert’s loyalty to DeLay, and the circumstances surrounding his selection, gave rise to the notion, promoted by Democrats, that Hastert is DeLay’s puppet. Hastert is willing to share power — to a degree — if it suits him. Hastert established himself in his own right after he led the House Republicans to victory in the 2000 elections.

What is true is that Democrats demonize DeLay and lay off the congenial speaker. Does DeLay drag Hastert to the right? The conservative Hastert generally does not travel down any path he does not wish to take. “If you look at my record in the Illinois General Assembly, you look at my record in Congress, I have been pretty conservative. I can’t say I have been far to the right, but I have been right of center pretty much consistently. And you know, I can’t say that Tom takes me to the right,” says Hastert. “My record speaks for itself.” Of their good cop-bad cop routine he says, “I think our two styles complement each other.”

His less-noted accomplishment is his relationship with the GOP moderates; they rarely use the leverage they have to derail the agenda set down by the White House and Hastert.

Hastert is unique in Washington. He is able to maintain his powerbase without the media. He runs from the camera. He shuns the weekend talk shows. Through July of this year, he’s been on three weekend shows. In 2001, he made only seven appearances with five of the bookings coming in the weeks following September 11. His occasional Thursday morning “pen and pads” with the congressional press corps rarely yields a headline.“He’s good at saying nothing

when he does not want to say anything,” says John Feehery, Hastert’s press secretary. “He is the anti-Newt when it comes to that.” In a town that is media obsessed, Hastert is not consumed with the press. Feehery prepares a one-page news summary for Hastert each morning. While Gephardt cruises the Internet for stories, Hastert never logs on.

The relationship between Hastert and Gephardt is intriguing.

Hastert’s all-time low on the job came over the selection of a new House chaplain, “when Gephardt tried to use the chaplain as a wedge issue,” Stokke says. “It was hideous.”

Hastert set up a search committee, a process that ended up exploding in his face. Three clerics were recommended by the panel. When the Catholic was not selected, rumbles of anti-Catholic bias started. Hastert was horrified. He ended up naming a Chicago priest, Father Daniel Coughlin.

The wounded Hastert then said from the floor, “I can only conclude that those who accuse me of anti-Catholic bigotry either don’t know me or are maliciously seeking political advantage by making these accusations.” Gephardt’s staff says he did nothing wrong. But the two men did not speak for a long time — until they found themselves together in a bunker on September 11, rushed to a hiding place after the Pentagon was attacked.

Gephardt is “not a bad person,” Hastert says, “but my frustration is you can never really sit down and talk to him and put something together. It is always wait and wait and wait and wait.”

Hastert’s inner circle consists of a small, trusted group of aides, mostly all white and all male. Stokke, his political adviser, and Scott Palmer, his chief of staff, have worked with Hastert for years. They know Illinois politics as well as the national scene. While in Washington, the three room together in a townhouse Hastert owns, where none of them has cooked a meal since 1986. Says Hastert, “I made tea once.” His sons also have bunked at the townhouse.

Over at La Colline, Hastert ticks off legislative accomplishments that will give members something to sell in November. The House passed a plan to help seniors pay for prescription drugs and beefed up its corporate accountability measure in the wake of more company scandals.

But the nation is at war, terrorism is a threat and, if the stock market is tanking in November, Republican prospects will dim.

Hastert is optimistic as he goes through each House race while the lobbyists listen. Says the speaker, “I am constantly amazed, in this climate, that we are in pretty good shape.”

 


Lynn Sweet is the Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief.

Illinois Issues, September 2002

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