Springfield's man on Capitol Hill

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, a top-ranking Democrat, reflects on 40 years in Congress

click to enlarge Richard Durbin now chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. - PHOTO COURTESY U.S. SENATE
Photo courtesy U.S. Senate
Richard Durbin now chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.

When he first arrived in Congress after defeating incumbent Representative Paul Findley in the 1982 election, Richard J. Durbin wasn't sure how long he'd be there.

"Congressional staff wanted to talk to me about my retirement system choice. I said, 'If I think I'm going to lose the next election, what should my choice be?'" Durbin said. "I began my congressional career really aware of the fact that I had defeated a 22-year Republican incumbent in a conservative part of the state, and the likelihood of reelection was always a question mark."

Nearly 40 years later the 76-year-old Durbin, a Democrat, has won every subsequent election, first for 20th District House of Representatives and then from 1996 onward for U.S. Senate. He's among the top Democratic leaders in the Senate, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and is interviewed regularly by the national news media, including Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press."

But Durbin still comes back to Springfield nearly every week to the home that he and his wife, Loretta, have shared for four decades. Durbin is proud of the changes to the capital city landscape that he has brought about during his time in elected office. And he's not shy about being in the forefront on some of the more contentious issues of our time, which has often put him at odds with his own congressman.

"It's my job to see that it passes"

Durbin is one of the key people making sure that President Joe Biden's agenda makes it through the Senate. He's the Senate Majority Whip, which takes on a special responsibility when the president is from the same political party.

"Counting noses is THE job. My opinions on what votes we are going to get on the roll call are important," Durbin said. "When a bill that's important to the administration hits the floor, it's my job to see that it passes."

"That is not an easy assignment. With a 50-50 Senate we can't afford to lose anybody," Durbin said. "If we get no Republican support we need every single Democrat and Kamala Harris with the visiting vote. That means keeping people together."

Durbin had been the Minority Whip for several years while the Republican Party controlled the Senate, so he's no stranger to the job. It may sound like he's the Democrats' Arm-Twister-in-Chief, but Durbin said it doesn't work that way in the Senate, and the key is understanding each senator's concerns about a particular vote.

"If you need to go up the ladder and talk about changing the bill to get their vote, you have to consider that possibility," Durbin said. "It does occasionally reach the point of horse trading. Members may say, 'This may be hard to explain back home, but it would help if I had X-Y-Z from the president,' a certain project or something important to them. That happens with presidents of both parties."

click to enlarge Senator Durbin and other local, state and federal elected officials at the Sixth Street railroad overpass project groundbreaking.
Senator Durbin and other local, state and federal elected officials at the Sixth Street railroad overpass project groundbreaking.

Speaking of the president, Durbin is impressed so far with the Biden administration and the people he has brought to his White House team.

"I think he has his priorities right, certainly starting with the pandemic, and of course getting the economy back on its feet and the kids back in school," Durbin said. "A new president's most effective period is their first year. Biden has the thinnest possible majority in the Senate and a scant majority in the House. But I think he has set out on a course that will define the early stages of his presidency, and I think he has a good chance to achieve it."

Durbin said he will continue to push Biden's pandemic initiatives regarding COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution, unemployment benefit extensions and stimulus payments.

Durbin is also the new chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of which he has been a longtime member. His first official action as chair came on Feb. 22 with the committee hearing into Biden's appointment of Merrick Garland for attorney general. Durbin anticipates that domestic terrorism, immigration, antitrust laws and privacy concerns with Google and Facebook will be among the issues the Judiciary Committee will tackle in the months ahead.

The Judiciary Committee is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with what Durbin characterizes as "star players" on the Democratic side, like veterans Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dianne Finstein of California, as well as talented younger senators. On the Republican side, Durbin has a good working relationship with committee members Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina but "things get a little rough" with some of the other conservative GOP Senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri.

"It's a 50-50 committee, which means if we're going to report a bill out of committee, it has to get support from both sides of the table," Durbin said. "That's a challenge."

"We've got to be honest with history"

click to enlarge Durbin with host Chuck Todd on NBC's “Meet the Press.” - PHOTO COURTESY NBC.
Photo courtesy NBC.
Durbin with host Chuck Todd on NBC's “Meet the Press.”

Durbin was in session at the Capitol on Jan. 6 when a mob attempted to disrupt the official certification of the 2020 election results. Durbin was not directly attacked and did not fear for his life, but what he witnessed was surreal.

"The Secret Service came in and yanked the vice president off the podium into a separate room and within minutes we were being evacuated and told to move as quickly as we could," Durbin said. "It was a real concern, not just for that day, but for what it said about our country, that we had reached a point where a mob would overrun the United States Capitol to interrupt the constitutional business we were conducting."

That incident convinced Durbin that a second impeachment proceeding against Donald Trump was necessary. Impeachment required a two-thirds vote in the Senate, something Majority Whip Durbin knew he couldn't deliver, but he disputed those who characterized the impeachment as a waste of time.

"Forty percent of his most loyal supporters do not believe that those were Trump supporters overrunning the Capitol," Durbin said. "They believe they were Antifa, left-wingers, Black Lives Matter, the list goes on and on. It's that kind of Soviet-style revisionism that this trial addressed.

"The House managers put on the record videotapes and other evidence that can't be denied. It's there, in living color," Durbin said. "We've got to be honest with history and those people who want to deny it or rewrite it have to be challenged directly."

The insurrection and second impeachment proceeding are among the latest symptoms of the extreme polarization of American politics. As a top Democratic leader in the Senate, Durbin is often at the center of that partisan maelstrom. Durbin said it's the nature of a diverse democracy that we go through periods of division, and coming together again won't be quick or easy.

"Race is still a major dividing point among Americans, and I naively believed that the election of Barack Obama marked a turning point," Durbin said. "In some ways it did, but it also tended to solidify opposition, which we are now seeing."

click to enlarge Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin at Judiciary Committee hearings in 2018. - PHOTO BY JACQUELYN MARTIN
Photo by Jacquelyn Martin
Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin at Judiciary Committee hearings in 2018.

But there are reasons for hope, Durbin said, as evidenced by the way he has formed lasting friendships with key Republican Senate leaders such as Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham.

"I have a special friendship with Lindsey Graham that has endured through the years and people in Springfield cannot even understand why I say that," Durbin said. "But he has helped me and I've tried to help him if something's right. When I reintroduced the Dream Act I had one lead Republican cosponsor and it was Lindsey Graham. He told me he would do it and he did it."

"It's simply a matter of justice"

The Dream Act of 2021, cosponsored by senators Durbin and Graham, is one of the main pieces of legislation that Durbin hopes to get passed during the current session of Congress. The Dream Act would allow nearly two million people living in this country who were brought here as infants and children the opportunity to earn their way to the legal status of citizenship.

"I believe there are enough Republicans in the Senate to help me pass it. It's simply a matter of justice," Durbin said. "Our immigration system is a disaster, it is a broken contraption that has been patched together for decades. The problem the Dream Act tries to solve is a clear illustration that it's unfair."

Durbin has also worked both sides of the political aisle to get several justice initiatives passed. The First Step Act, which Durbin cosponsored with Republican senators Chuck Grassley and Mike Lee, focused on correcting mandatory minimum sentencing. It passed and was signed into law by President Trump.

"The worst vote I ever cast as a member of Congress was when we passed a crime bill which really hit crack cocaine sentencing hard," Durbin said. "The net result was we filled the American prison system in a way we'd never seen before. The numbers were unimaginable, and by and large they were African Americans who engaged in crack cocaine trafficking."

The Fair Sentencing Act, signed by President Obama, corrected a mistake that Durbin and his colleagues made nearly 25 years ago.

click to enlarge Durbin met with members of the Illinois National Guard Jan. 19 when they were in Washington, D.C., as part of the security team ahead of the inauguration. - PHOTO COURTESY U.S. SENATE.
Photo courtesy U.S. Senate.
Durbin met with members of the Illinois National Guard Jan. 19 when they were in Washington, D.C., as part of the security team ahead of the inauguration.

"What I'm trying to do is establish a standard of justice that reflects the values of this country," Durbin said. "When we go overboard, and we do, we have to be prepared to admit it and try to make it better."

Durbin is committed to making the refugee crisis better and alleviating the ordeals suffered by families who "are begging for the chance to come to this country."

"My mother was an immigrant to this country, brought here at the age of two. I know my grandmother brought along a couple of things with her and the three kids, including a Catholic prayer book written in Lithuanian, which had been banned in that country," Durbin said. "She knew she had the freedom in this country to exercise her religious beliefs without the government dictating it."

For-profit schools are another issue about which Durbin has strong feelings, calling them "the biggest ripoff of education in America."

"Eight percent of high school graduates go to for-profit colleges and universities, but 30 percent of student loan defaults are from students at for-profit schools because those schools charge too much and offer too little," Durbin said. "Students who don't know any better wind up signing up after some flashy ad campaign for one of these schools and end up wasting their time and money at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. I think they are an outrage."

"I've got my fingerprints on it"

Durbin has avoided living full time in Washington, D.C., and has returned home to Illinois nearly every weekend while Congress is in session. He maintains constituent offices in Chicago, Carbondale, Rock Island and Springfield, but during the COVID-19 pandemic Durbin has primarily worked from the Springfield office, in the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, and done business via Zoom calls.

Durbin is proud of the federally funded projects that he's been able to bring to Illinois, including the railroad reconstruction and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.

"If you see it in this town, most times I've got my fingerprints on it," Durbin said.

Durbin's fellow U.S. Senator from Illinois is Tammy Duckworth.

"As both a friend and a mentor to me, working alongside Senator Durbin in the U.S. Senate is an honor," said Duckworth, a Democrat. "I'm inspired by his dedication to the people of Illinois and could ask for no better partner in the Senate to support all Illinoisans."

Republican federal elected officials from Illinois are not always so complimentary. Durbin is a constituent of 13th District Congressman Rodney Davis, whose history with the Durbin team stretches back to Davis' tenure as a staff member for Congressman John Shimkus.

"In my four terms in Congress I would have hoped that we worked together on more issues than we have," Davis said. "But even in spite of that, we've seen some successes in two different presidential administrations keeping projects in Springfield moving forward that we both support."

Davis said he remembers attending a 2012 orientation for new members of Congress during which Durbin told him, "Rodney, we'll work together when we can, but there will be times that politics gets in the way."

"Boy, that was an understatement," Davis said. "Over the last eight years it's always been a fight, and it's unfortunate. He's tried to beat me every time I've had my name on the ballot. He's been very, very partisan on issues that are important to all of us."

"Although I've been disappointed at our relationship over the last eight years, I'm hoping it will improve if the senator shows a willingness that he hasn't shown in the past," Davis said.

"Two people that ran against one another could ultimately be friends"

Richard and Loretta Durbin have been married for 53 years. They have had two daughters and one son – one daughter died several years ago – and six grandchildren. The Durbins have lived in the same Springfield residence from which he launched his first run for office, the 1982 race for 20th District Congress.

That 1982 campaign was hard-fought, close and expensive. Durbin and incumbent Republican Paul Findley each spent a fortune at the time, $800,000 apiece, in a race decided by less than 2,000 votes.

The two men had almost no contact after the election until several years later when Findley reached out to Durbin to express an opinion on an issue.

"We struck up a friendship, which deepened and grew stronger over the years. He invited me to come to his alma mater, Illinois College in Jacksonville, and give a speech to the student body in 2012, and he introduced me," Durbin said. "I got up on stage and said the last time Congressman Findley and I were on stage was a debate at Sangamon State University in 1982, and it was an honor to come back at his invitation to Illinois College."

That spirit of friendship between former rivals is what Durbin hopes will frame American political discourse in the future.

"I think that's a good story for people to hear when you consider the divisions in politics today," Durbin said. "That two people who ran against one another could ultimately be friends."

David Blanchette is a freelance writer and photographer, and is also the board chairman of the Jacksonville Area Museum under development in his hometown.

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