Zack Stamp's 2021 memoir, Things as I Remember Them, provides insights to the inner workings of state government. Political junkies and anyone who worked in and around state government over the past several decades will recognize many familiar names peppered throughout his entertaining stories.
Stamp worked inside state government for nearly 40 years. He worked on numerous Republican political campaigns, ran for election to the Illinois House of Representatives (and lost), worked on the Senate Republican staff and had a long association with Gov. James R. Thompson (JRT). He worked on Thompson's first campaign for governor in 1977 while in law school at Southern Illinois University. He later became Thompson's trusted director of legislative affairs. At the end of the Thompson administration, Stamp was director of the Illinois Department of Insurance. He went on to form his own firm and lobby the legislature for many years. Stamp had no intent to settle any score or embarrass anyone, consequently many things he does remember didn't make it into the book.
JRT was gregarious, politically savvy, larger-than-life, smart and able to connect with people from all walks of life. He had a photographic memory, a passion for antiques and was a natural campaigner. He was equally at ease talking to a union worker or a Nobel Prize winner. He didn't act on a bill until reviewing the bill file and knowing all sides of the issue. Stamp reveals all of these attributes through stories of working in the trenches. Stamp conveys the messy ingredients of "sausage-making," otherwise called how a bill becomes law.
Stamp was born in 1953, and the first half of the memoir is devoted to his formative years. His nostalgic reminiscences of growing up in a small town in Illinois in the 1950s and 1960s will strike a chord with many.
Stamp was born and raised in Stronghurst, a village in Henderson County, near Burlington, Iowa, where doors were never locked, guns and knives were a part of everyday life, hunting was a regular occurrence, kids were free to roam and explore, and pretty much everyone knew each other. He has vivid memories of boxes of Indian bones in the barn, collected by his grandfather. From his parents he learned to "stand on your own and take care of yourself."
Stamp went to Monmouth College and played football, later transferring to Western Illinois University. He spent three summers working for the Henderson County Highway Department and later worked on drilling rigs. He was also the McDonough County Deputy Sheriff, initially a 90-day assignment. "So began a two-year segment of my life that encompassed death, destruction, misery and the dark side of many people," he writes. He was exposed to all kinds of situations by going on night patrol and domestic violence calls. "The job introduced me to some of the most interesting characters that I would ever meet."
Stamp also suffered personal tragedies. He reveals the dark story of being molested by his uncle as a youth, how he and his family dealt with this at the time, and how that experience affected him in the short and long term. His first marriage ended in divorce after the heartbreak of having a premature son who lived only a few hours after birth.
Stamp met Diane Ford while working on a legislative issue, and they married in 1983. Their sons were the impetus for Stamp to write this book. "For them to imagine that their father was ever young is even harder to fathom than the fact that they themselves will someday be old," writes Stamp.
Western Illinois University presented Stamp with its Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005. He sold his firm, Zack Stamp Ltd., in 2016, and now lives full time in Florida with Diane, who is also an attorney who worked many years in state government.
When asked what has changed since his days working for Thompson, Stamp replied that there used to be a middle. "There were downstate Dems who were socially conservative and Republican legislators from the Chicago suburbs who were pro-choice." There was a middle ground that doesn't exist now. With redistricting, the primaries have become the races. As for how Republicans and Democrats have approached redistricting, he says "There is no virgin at this dance."
Stamp says Thompson was a Republican governor who brought parties to the table. Social media is now an echo chamber where people can live in their own bubble without hearing other voices. Stamp says common experiences have shaped us, and we are more alike than we admit. He would like people to know that there was a time when people could and did work together.
Things as I Remember Them, by Zack Stamp. Kindle Edition, 2021. 244 pages, $18.71. Available by calling Joyce Proctor at Zack Stamp Ltd, 217-525-0700 ext. 103, or by emailing the author at email@example.com.
Karen Ackerman Witter worked on Governor Thompson's policy staff as assistant to the governor for natural resources during the time Zack Stamp was director of legislative affairs for JRT. She interacted with Stamp on many aspects of the sausage-making process. She was director of the Department of Energy and Natural Resources when Stamp was director of the Department of Insurance at the end of the Thompson administration. Reading Things as I Remember Them prompted her to remember many things.