The making of a respectable lobbyist

Randy Witter has learned a thing or two during his 48 years of lobbying work at the Illinois State Capitol.

"I learned early on that if you treat everyone the same way, whether it's the governor or the janitor, with the same respect, you're going to get further ahead," said the 72-year-old Witter. "You don't necessarily have to get along with them, but you have to respect them."

Witter, the principal of Cook-Witter Inc. of Springfield, retired Oct. 1 after a lobbying career that began in 1973. Although his experiences could fill several volumes, Witter confessed, "I'm not going to write a book, I don't want to say this or that person was crazy." But he has picked up some wisdom along the way about how things really get done under the Capitol dome.

"Political Science 101 and political reality are not the same thing." Witter said. "You can pick up the formal education of how a bill becomes law, but to really understand the nuances, the people and the organizational dynamics, well, I am still learning now."

"I've seen God, flag, apple pie and motherhood all go down the drain and I've seen pieces of legislation I never thought would pass, get passed," Witter said. "Most people don't realize why we have the laws that we have, what goes into the final result."

Witter has had more than a front-row seat to the machinations of the Illinois General Assembly during his lifetime of work. He has been an active, behind-the-scenes participant in some of the key issues of our time, working tirelessly to pass, defeat or change laws that impact our daily lives.

It all started when Witter, who had just gotten out of the military and had become dissatisfied with law school, got to tag along with some lobbyists at the invitation of a former Western Illinois University professor.

"He invited me to Springfield, he had hired two contract lobbyists, and he said, 'Follow them around and at the end of the day come back and tell me what is happening with community college legislation,'" Witter said.

Witter worked with the contract lobbyists for the state community college system and was "tangentially involved" with his first piece of legislation, a bill that would place every high school district within a community college district. He became hooked, and started taking evening classes at Sangamon State University to seek a master's degree in public administration.

One of the guest lecturers at Witter's Sangamon State classes was Bob Cook, the executive vice president of the Illinois Association of Realtors. Witter approached him after class and told Cook that he was interested in doing some lobbying work. Cook hired Witter in April 1974 as the first legislative assistant at the Illinois Association of Realtors.

Cook retired as the executive vice president in 1984, Witter left the Association of Realtors in 1985 as the director of government relations, and the two men started Cook-Witter Inc. on Oct. 1, 1985.

click to enlarge The making of a respectable lobbyist
Photos courtesy of Randy Witter
Bob Cook, Gov. Jim Edgar, artist Bill Crook, and Randy Witter with one of the prints sold through the Cook-Witter office.

"We are going to keep this on the up-and-up"

Cook-Witter's first office was a block south of the Capitol complex and their list of lobbying clients steadily grew. But the partners were choosy about the issues they would tackle.

"Cook was a pretty staunch Baptist, three of his four kids were missionaries, and I am a Methodist, and we decided that we did not want to represent liquor, tobacco or gambling," Witter said.

"I very quickly learned that what was happening at the Capitol was monumental in the way it impacted the day-to-day lives of Illinois citizens."

One of those monumental issues was the Illinois Clean Indoor Air Act in the mid-1980s, and Cook-Witter was representing the American Cancer Society, Illinois Division. The firm was fighting against the powerful tobacco industry and its longtime lobbyist, Bud Kelley.

"When we first got hired by the Cancer Society, I found Bud in the House gallery and said, 'Bud, I wanted to let you know. We were just hired by the American Cancer Society, Illinois Division. Nothing personal, we are going to keep this on the up-and-up,'" Witter said. "And he said, 'I appreciate that.' He was always very straightforward, he wasn't trying to trick us, we weren't trying to trick him. We had this mutual respect for each other."

The Witter-Kelley showdown over the Clean Indoor Air Act was chronicled in an April 8, 1993, Illinois Times article. The act passed, but not before some last-minute drama that illustrated how things are often done in Springfield.

"Bob Cook took a late-night phone call from a House majority leader who said, 'I've got a neighbor with several bowling alleys and the way we understand this bill, he won't be able to have people smoking in his bowling alleys. You may want to rethink that,'" Witter said. "We told our clients that this gentleman had enough power to stop the bill from passing, so we took out bowling alleys, and for the first several years of the Clean Indoor Air Act, bowling alleys were exempt."

Despite the 11th-hour removal of bowling alleys from the legislation, Cook-Witter's clients were thrilled about how the firm worked to get the Clean Indoor Air Act passed.

"Randy Witter's advocacy and long-standing relationships helped show the political establishment that the 'smoke-filled rooms' legacy of the past didn't belong as a social norm or way of doing business in Illinois anymore," said Ginnie Flynn, vice president of communications for the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians, one of the organizations that joined the Cancer Society in the fight to get the bill passed. "Now an entire new generation is growing up without the everyday exposure of seeing smoke in public indoor spaces. My youngest daughter was born three days before the Clean Indoor Act took effect on Jan. 1, 2008."

"The best thing to do is go and sit down with them"

click to enlarge The making of a respectable lobbyist
Then Attorney General Neil Hartigan, right, pokes fun at Randy Witter's mustache in June 1984.
Witter is also proud of the service animal legislation he worked on for the Manufactured Housing Association. Before the bill was passed, virtually anyone with official-looking papers could force a landlord to accept an animal in a rental building regardless of whether the property allowed pets.

"There were internet sites where you could fill out a form, send some money, and they sent a certificate that said, 'You need to have Fluffy by your side at all times,'" Witter said. "Well, it might be great if Fluffy was a little poodle, but if Fluffy turns out to be something crazy like a boa constrictor, that's a problem."

Legislation that was being considered by the Illinois General Assembly didn't address this abuse of the law's intent, so Witter went right to the source.

"One of the things I learned early on was if you disagree with someone at the Capitol, the best thing to do is go and sit down with them," Witter said. "I talked to the legislation's proponents, and they were just as upset as we were with the fake certificates that were being used by people who were abusing the purpose of the law."

The compromise that ensued from the one-on-one conversation proved to be reasonable and acceptable to everyone, Witter said.

Witter pointed to another career highlight, the licensure of 35 professions by the state of Illinois. The 1970 Illinois Constitution provided home rule powers to certain communities, and they felt they had the power to license whomever they pleased. The realtors and other associations for whom Witter worked felt such a result would be a patchwork of different rules and regulations.

Witter and Cook worked to pass a bill that said the state of Illinois would have the exclusive right to license more than 30 different professions. The home rule municipalities immediately took it to the Illinois Supreme Court, which rejected the legislation. There were 35 occupations listed in the bill, and the Supreme Court considered each occupation to be a different subject matter. The court ruled that the state constitution limited each bill to a single subject matter.

"So we immediately turned around and went back into the legislature with 35 different, individual bills and passed them all," Witter said. "We were testing the 1970 constitution."

Witter was there for the historic 1979 Legislative Cutback Amendment, which reduced the size of the Illinois House of Representatives from 177 members to 118. He was in the Capitol "the night that everything went crazy on the Equal Rights Amendment, people were throwing what was supposed to be blood all over the marble floor of the rotunda," Witter said of the unsuccessful attempt to pass the legislation in this state during the 1970s. "There were women chained together on the first floor of the rotunda. The whole thing was surreal."

Illinois finally became the 37th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in 2018, something Witter was also able to witness.

Witter's most recent involvement in major legislation was the lobbying work he did as part of the state's nearly 1,000-page energy bill.

"There had to have been 75 to 100 different organizations involved," Witter said. "At the end, some of the things that got hung up had nothing to do with the nuclear power plants staying open or closed, but it had to do with the use of coal."

click to enlarge The making of a respectable lobbyist
Photos courtesy of Randy Witter
Bob Cook, Gov. Jim Edgar, artist Bill Crook, and Randy Witter with one of the prints sold through the Cook-Witter office.

"He was smart and sharp and would ask all the right questions"

Witter has seen many changes during his 48 years of working in the Capitol.

"When I first started, my memory of the Capitol was beige. Today, the Capitol is more colorful, vibrant and historically authentic than ever, that restoration has been a huge improvement," Witter said. "In the 1970s there were canvas curtains, like big shower curtains, on the sides of the House Chamber and there were desks underneath the balcony. Legislators would stick their heads out from behind the curtain to ask for somebody."

When Witter started in 1973 he said there were 11 women in the Illinois House and Senate, amounting to just 4.7 percent of the total members in both chambers. Today there are 25 women in the state Senate, or 42.4 percent, and 46 women in the House, or 39 percent of its members.

"And there are probably as many women lobbyists today as men," Witter said.

The 1970s Capitol had telephone booths on the first and third floors since there were no cellphones. To avoid waiting in line at the phone booths to make an important call, Cook and Witter purchased some of the first "walkie-talkie telephones that were about the size of a brick," Witter said.

Technology has increased the pace at the Capitol during recent years. When Witter started, proposed amendments to bills were printed each night and copies distributed throughout the Statehouse the next day, giving those interested in the legislation time to formulate support or opposition.

"Today, an amendment is offered and you don't even know about it until about an hour before it's heard in committee," Witter said. "The staffer will call and ask what your opinion is. Things can happen so rapidly it's phenomenal."

Witter remembers working with many people in the Illinois General Assembly who went on to greater things. They include former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Congressman Henry Hyde and Congressman Ray LaHood, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, former Governor Rod Blagojevich, and state Senate staff member and current U.S. Senator Dick Durbin.

"A guy in the Senate by the name of Barack Obama was very businesslike. When he would leave a committee room and go to his office, he was always on his cellphone," Witter said. "He was cordial, he was nice, but you knew from the very beginning he was smart and sharp and would ask all of the right questions."

"Barack truly reached out to try to embrace some of the ideas that the other side of the aisle would have," Witter said. "Kirk Dillard, a Republican, was on the Judiciary Committee with Barack and the two of them worked very closely on judicial reform and things like that. So there was a lot of respect for Barack."

Witter said that "all of the governors have had their pluses and minuses," but he was especially impressed with the late Governor Jim Thompson.

"He could take a document a few minutes before walking into a gathering and he could cite line and verse from the document he literally just read for the first time minutes ago," Witter said. "Thompson had the ability to work the crowd. He could drink beer out of a plunger at the Western Illinois University football game for charity, go to a grade school and get down on the mat with kindergartners, or go to New York and he knew as much as anybody in the room about aspects of finance."

Witter had his own admirers among the Capitol's political professionals.

"Randy was a true professional, I had all the respect in the world for him," said former State Rep. Rich Brauer of Petersburg. "What a lot of people don't realize is that if lobbyists are good, like Randy, they give you information for both sides of the issue."

State Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington said, "Randy is the epitome of a lobbyist who has respect from both sides."

"He's knowledgeable, is a square shooter, and when he tells you something you can bank on it. These are all characteristics that are noted by legislators," Brady said. "He worked at it full throttle, making sure that you as a legislator had what you needed regarding every aspect of what the issue may or may not be. Randy was one of those diamonds in the rough."

"Tell the client the bad news before you tell them the good news"

Cook-Witter always had a 30-to-60-day "out" provision on their lobbying contracts so that lobbyist or client could sever the relationship if either side felt that something was not right. Witter said that the first thing Cook-Witter always examined was whether a potential client could pose a conflict of interest.

Cook-Witter was hired by Kraft Corporation to focus on the company's packaging and dairy products. When RJR Nabisco, which had large tobacco interests, bought out Kraft, Witter immediately contacted his cancer society clients and assured them that Cook-Witter had no intention of working on any issue involving tobacco. Within six months of the merger, Cook-Witter's relationship with Kraft/RJR Nabisco was ended.

Witter admitted that many people consider "lobbyist" to be a four-letter word, but "it's like used car salesmen or attorneys, you're going to have good ones, bad ones, timid ones, bold ones, you're going to have every kind."

And lobbyists are not miracle workers.

"Sometimes the client comes up with a wish list and you have to tell them it is unrealistic, that we have to do something different," Witter said. "I think it's important to tell the client the bad news before you tell them the good news. The worst is a lobbyist who doesn't communicate with the client."

Every day Witter would interact with powerful political figures, especially the speaker of the House of Representatives, on behalf of legislation that was important to his clients. He grew to respect former House Speaker Mike Madigan and former speaker and governor, George Ryan.

"You'd talk to George and within the first sentence he'd say, 'Yep, I think I can help ya,' or 'Nope, I'm on the wrong side of this, you guys gotta figure out something else.' And we appreciated that," Witter said. "We may disagree with his position, he may be sympathetic to what we are saying, but he's already agreed to something else."

"The legislature is truly a representation of the population of Illinois as a whole. There are people in the legislature that you say, 'Wow, they are so brilliant, what are they doing here, they could be doing all kinds of other stuff,'" Witter said. "Then there are other legislators that you'd say, 'Wow, if their constituents only knew.' And you have to get along with everybody."

"We tried to do what we believed was right"

Cook-Witter was sold to McGuireWoods Consulting as of Oct. 1.

"Randy has been a fixture at the Capitol for 48 years and his clients love him," said Tom Londrigan, senior vice president and director of McGuireWoods Consulting's Illinois government affairs team. "McGuireWoods Consulting, both in Illinois and around the country, provides the same personal, effective and reliable client service. It's a good match."

Besides lobbying, Cook-Witter had built upon Bob Cook's and Randy Witter's association management training and offered that service to clients as well. The two men started a prestigious intern program that took graduate students on a totally immersive experience through a spring legislative session. Many interns have gone on to become lawmakers themselves or to work on legislative staffs in Springfield or Washington, D.C.

Cook-Witter developed a pre-visit orientation program coordinated through the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau for all of the schoolchildren who visit the Capitol. The firm later ended up selling the program rights to Illinois Bell. Cook and Witter encouraged local artist Bill Crook to do pen and ink drawings of scenes around the Capitol, and for years Crook's prints were purchased through the Cook-Witter offices.

Many people through the years have also subscribed to "The Cook-Witter Report," a newsletter which began publication in 1985 and features articles on legislation and people in government.

Witter's longtime business partner, Bob Cook, died in 2017.

"Cook treated me like a son. He was a mentor, 26 years my senior," Witter said. "Cook was a straight arrow. Some people thought, and still think, that we were goody-two-shoes. We tried to do what we believed was right."

Randy has been married to Karen Ackerman Witter for 42 years. The couple have a daughter, a son and two grandchildren.

Witter's office in the firm's building along East Cook Street, just across the street from the Dana-Thomas House State Historic Site, features framed signatures and portraits of people such as Martin Luther King Jr. and numerous past presidents, including one framed piece with signatures from both President James Garfield and his assassin, Charles Guiteau.

"It's just a hobby. I don't know where I'm going to put all of it when we move," Witter said.

Witter plans to do pro bono work for the Illinois Innocence Project and "other causes I think are fair and just" now that he's officially retired, but "I will avoid trying to get into politics. I've often said the Republicans think I'm too much of a Democrat and the Democrats think I'm too much of a Republican."

Witter has no regrets for his 48-year career of getting things done at the Illinois Statehouse.

"I often wonder what would have happened if I had gone back to law school. I most likely would have ended up going back to Rock Island and practicing with my father," Witter said. "It wouldn't be the same. You need to be happy with what you are doing. I've had some great opportunities, I met a lot of people."

David Blanchette spent 27 years working for state government, often in and around the State Capitol, at a state agency and as governor's office media spokesperson. Since 2015 he has been a freelance writer and photographer, and a frequent contributor to Illinois Times. He is also board chairman of the recently-opened Jacksonville Area Museum.

About The Author

David Blanchette

David Blanchette has been involved in journalism since 1979, first as an award-winning broadcaster, then a state government spokesperson, and now as a freelance writer and photographer. He was involved in the development of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and more recently the Jacksonville...

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