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Hastert returns to his humble beginnings after historic career
By Lisa Smith | Daily Herald Staff

How does 66-year-old former House speaker view himself: One of many "average men and women sent (to Congress) by average men and women to fulfill our founding fathers' vision of a citizen legislature."

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Dennis Hastert talks with Daily Herald reporter Lisa Smith in his Yorkville office.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Hastert was tapped to be speaker in late 1998, after Gingrich and Speaker-elect Bob Livingston stepped down, earning him the title "accidental speaker."

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/21/2008 3:15 PM | Updated: 2/22/2008 12:13 AM

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There's a common theme running through his many political campaigns, tribute dinners, and even Dennis Hastert's own 2004 memoir: Common man, fed by homespun American values and a strong work ethic, makes it big but doesn't forget where he came from.

It's part of the picture the retired politician hopes will be reflected in the history books, which also will note Hastert's tenure as the longest-serving Republican House speaker.

The 66-year-old former congressman from Plano, who retired in November after 26 years in politics, calls himself just one of many "average men and women sent (to Congress) by average men and women to fulfill our founding fathers' vision of a citizen legislature."

When asked to define his legacy, Hastert first mentioned his accomplishments as a congressman representing his constituents.

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"I always believe that my heart was back in my district," Hastert said. "Really my No. 1 concern was taking care of the people of the 14th Congressional District, to make life better, make sure you build mundane things like bridges so you can get back and forth across the Fox River."

Indeed, Hastert secured $70.4 million in federal funds for the Stearns Road bridge corridor under construction in St. Charles Township, a project that wouldn't have happened without his help, said Kane County Board Chairman Karen McConnaughay.

"He recognized in the late '80s that this area was growing at a rapid pace and that there was a need to address transportation infrastructure," said McConnaughay, a St. Charles Republican and longtime Hastert supporter.

Hastert also is proud of his legacy as House speaker, where he worked closely alongside President Bush. He rattled off a list of accomplishments that included creating health savings accounts, adding a prescription drug program to Medicare, passing the two largest tax cuts in the nation's history, continuing the war on drugs, reducing the Social Security earnings limit, and working with the administration to prevent another 9/11.

"There's a lot of people who can take credit for that, but I think the policies that we passed in the Congress, knock on wood and thank the Lord, we haven't been attacked again since 9/11," Hastert said in a recent interview in his Yorkville office.

His retirement Nov. 26 marked the end of an era for Hastert and the residents of Illinois' Fox River Valley, who no longer have Hastert to bring home the bacon. He has secured millions in federal funding for Kane County's farmland protection program, which allows agricultural landowners to sell development rights to the county instead of developers.

A longtime supporter of Fermilab, Hastert left local officials wondering if the proposed Fermi layoffs would be happening if he hadn't retired early and was able to push for more funding for the U.S. Department of Energy's high-energy physics programs.

He secured untold millions for road projects, including a $207 million earmark for the Prairie Parkway through Kane and Kendall counties linking the Reagan Memorial Tollway and Interstate 80.

But it's those earmarks that concern fiscal conservatives and critics who say the process is too secretive. Earmarking, which increased among Republicans under Hastert's leadership, continues to run rampant despite repeated requests for reform.

Coupled with a federal deficit that grew under his watch and various ethics scandals that have emerged, such a history can be hard to reconcile with the image of Hastert as hometown hero.

Unexpected ascent

Born Jan. 2, 1942, in Aurora, Hastert was the first of three sons for Jack and Naomi Hastert. The family owned a small farm supply business, where a young Denny bagged and hauled feed for customers. He also worked on the family farm, cleaning under the roosts in the chicken house, and later put in shifts at the family restaurant in Plainfield.

Hastert became a born-again Christian as a teenager and, after high school, enrolled in Wheaton College, the Christian liberal arts school that also counts evangelist Billy Graham among its graduates.

While earning his master's degree in education at Northern Illinois University, he became a government and history teacher at Yorkville High School. There the former high school wrestler and football player also coached, leading his 1976 wrestling team to a state title.

A short time later Hastert was bitten by the political bug. A teacher for more than a dozen years, Hastert was considering applying for a job as assistant principal at Yorkville High School, but realized he didn't want to spend the rest of his life counseling students and teachers.

"That realization," he wrote in his memoir, "helped lead me toward a career in the state legislature."

He approached Kendall County GOP political operative Phyllis Oldenburg about running for an open seat in the state legislature.

"He knew nothing about politics. He will be the first to own up to that today," recalled Oldenburg, of Yorkville. "It has been the most beautiful time to watch him grow. I sit in awe of the whole situation."

He lost the 1980 GOP primary for the Illinois House of Representatives, but after the nominee fell ill and dropped out, party leaders turned to Hastert, who went on to win the election.

Six years later, after John Grotberg's illness prevented him from seeking a second term in Congress, Hastert was nominated to replace him and beat Democrat Mary Lou Kearns in the general election that fall.

Hastert rose through the ranks of the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming Chief Deputy Whip under Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995 after Republicans gained control of the House. He was tapped to be speaker in late 1998, after Gingrich and Speaker-elect Bob Livingston stepped down, earning him the title "accidental speaker."

"And this thing happened and people said, 'You're going to be the next speaker,'" Hastert recalled at a recent tribute dinner. "I kind of looked up and said, you know, 'Why me, Lord?' But it happened."

Being speaker wasn't that much different than being a coach, Hastert explained in his autobiography, "Speaker: Lessons from Forty Years in Coaching and Politics."

"The coaches who have the most success put their best and most talented people out front to achieve and everyone else comes together to work," he wrote. "A talented coach isn't always in the headlines."

What his critics say

Although it's true he didn't seek the spotlight as aggressively as Gingrich, his bombastic predecessor, Hastert did make headlines over the years. And it's these headlines -- highlighting his role in scandals involving infamous Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his Prairie Parkway land deal and disgraced former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley -- that critics say contrast with the folksy hometown hero image he and his supporters see as his legacy.

Although he wasn't implicated in the Abramoff scandal that resulted in the downfall of close political ally Tom DeLay, a former Texas congressman, it was under Hastert's watch that cozy relationships between politicians and lobbyists thrived, critics say.

"He gets treated as this benign figure, but it was really under his leadership that he allowed DeLay to flourish and engage in so much, if not illegal, at least unethical behavior. And he knew what DeLay was up to," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.

Hastert points out that he and other Republican leaders forced former GOP congressmen Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney to resign as soon as they discovered their ethical lapses, while on the other side of the aisle, "people who were tied up in scandals are still in Congress." That includes U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha, the Pennsylvannia Democrat involved in an FBI bribery investigation in 1980.

Hastert also made a $2 million profit by selling land near the proposed Prairie Parkway, a project he championed and included as a $207 million earmark in federal legislation. The land deal was one of the factors Rolling Stone cited in putting Hastert at the top of its list of the 10 worst congressmen in 2006. The magazine also called him the "weakest House speaker in history."

"Most homespun heroes who are focused on serving the people don't end up with the assets that he came across in Congress," said Bill Allison, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation watchdog group. "His rise was very compelling, but once he was in office, it seems like he forgot those roots in terms of what he did and how he governed -- the way the K Street lobbyists became key constituents."

Hastert was blasted for failing to intervene after learning about Foley's sexual advances on underage male interns. A four-member congressional ethics subcommittee criticized him for trying to "shift notice and responsibility" for the former Republican congressman.

Still, Hastert contends he and other Republican leaders "did what we could with what we knew."

The scandal broke just before the November 2006 election that resulted in Republicans losing control of Congress, forcing Hastert to give up his leadership position.

Republican fiscal conservatives blast federal spending in the Bush/Hastert years. When Bush took office, he inherited a $127 billion surplus that is now an $163 billion budget deficit. The average deficit under Bush has been 2.6 percent of gross domestic product, compared to 0.1 percent under Clinton, according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.

But Grover Norquist, a conservative activist and president of anti-tax lobbying group Americans For Tax Reform, praises Hastert for his role in getting the House of Representatives to pass a tax cut every year he was speaker, even when then-President Clinton vetoed them. Deficits aside, the economy grew because of the tax cuts championed by Hastert and approved by Bush in 2001 and 2003, Norquist argued.

"He had strong economic growth, he kept his coalition together, he won a series of difficult elections," Norquist said. "The House passed basically the entire Republican agenda each year (Hastert was speaker). … I think he had a very successful speakership."

Hastert's future

Still, his retirement doesn't seem to signify a break from politics. Hastert will still be a player in local and national GOP politics, lending his name and fundraising capabilities to candidates he favors.

Days after his farewell dinners in December, Hastert announced his endorsement of dairy magnate Jim Oberweis for his congressional seat, praising him for having "the right conservative philosophy that fits our district."

He also traveled to Iowa and Michigan to stump for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who has since suspended his campaign.

And, in the primary election this month, Hastert was voted in as a GOP precinct committeeman in Kendall County's Little Rock Township. He was unopposed.

One project of regional interest Hastert hopes to help with is Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympic games. He has been talking to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley about assisting the mayor's efforts to bring the games here, calling the event "a good thing for the people of northern Illinois."

A grand opening for his eponymous center at Wheaton College -- the $10 million J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy -- is scheduled to take place in the spring.

By retiring in 2007 instead of 2008, Hastert exited office just before a new ethics law took effect requiring former politicians to wait two years before becoming lobbyists. He still must wait one year under the old law, but Hastert said he doesn't plan to follow in the footsteps of his elder son, Joshua, who took a job at a lobbying firm after Hastert became speaker.

"I don't really see myself as a lobbyist and would probably not do that at all," Hastert said.

Whatever Hastert's professional future holds, one thing is certain: The retired politician finally will have some more time to spend with his family. Fishing, painting duck decoys and restoring his collection of vintage cars are among his hobbies.

"He always said that his home was on the Fox River, not the Potomac River, and that's really the case," said his younger son, Ethan. "He came back here every weekend he could."

Timeline

Jan. 2, 1942: John Dennis Hastert is born in Aurora, the eldest of three sons

1964: Graduates from Wheaton College with a bachelor's degree in economics

1967: Earns master's degree in philosophy of education from Northern Illinois University

1976: Coaches the Yorkville High School wrestling team to a state title. Later named Illinois Coach of the Year.

Nov. 4, 1980: Elected to the Illinois House of Representatives

Nov. 4, 1986: Defeats then-Kane County Coroner Mary Lou Kearns to become U.S. representative for the 14th Congressional District

Jan. 3, 1995: Named the GOP's Chief Deputy Whip, serving under Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Jan. 6, 1999: Sworn in as House speaker, an accidental ascension after Gingrich and Speaker-elect Bob Livingston resign. Gingrich's departure is spurred by GOP losses in the 1998 midterm elections. Livingston resigns days after admitting to an extramarital affair.

Sept. 11, 2001: As third in line to the presidency, Hastert is evacuated to a secure location during the terrorist attacks.

Sept. 1, 2005: Sparks controversy by questioning whether it's wise to spend federal dollars to rebuild hurricane-stricken New Orleans, suggesting much of city "could be bulldozed."

June 1, 2006: Becomes longest-serving Republican speaker in U.S. history.

Oct. 17, 2006: Rolling Stone magazine names him the country's worst congressman, in part because of involvement in the Prairie Parkway, a highway critics say will speed development of land he owns.

Nov. 7, 2006: Wins final Congressional election with 60 percent of vote. However, Republicans lose House majority and Hastert loses the speakership.

Aug. 17, 2007: Announces he won't seek a 12th term.

Nov. 26, 2007: Resigns, effective 10:59 p.m.

Dec. 13, 2007: Endorses dairy magnate Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove as his successor.