Feature

Former Congressman on Past and Future of American Politics

By Julian O’Donnell, Online Associate Editor

// As the country remains divided over the new Donald Trump presidency, Acalanes has also seen a rise in political participation, from a walk-out protest to the onslaught of social media posts.

   I had the opportunity to interview someone uniquely qualified to comment on the current political state: former Democratic Congressman Marty Russo from Illinois’ 3rd District, who served in the House of Representatives from 1975-1993. Russo also worked closely with leaders like Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill and President George H.W. Bush. We discussed not only his time in Washington, D.C., but also President Trump and what the the next four (possibly eight) years will entail.

BP: What drew you to become involved in politics?

I served as a Cook County Illinois Assistant State Attorney and spent three years prosecuting street gangs. One day I got a call from a friend who said they were looking for someone to run as a Democrat in a Congressional district that was 2 to 1 Republican. He said I would lose, but it would raise my profile. I had never thought of being in political office, but decided to give it a try. This was 1974 and the Watergate scandal and resignation of Richard Nixon were demoralizing to Republicans. On Election Day, half the Republicans who normally voted stayed home. I was the surprise winner of a Congressional seat at age 30.

BP: How was it to work with Richard Daley, the famous Chicago mayor, who was the chairman of Cook County’s Democratic Central Committee, a county that comprises most of your district?

He was a great, caring leader. He told me once “If you take care of the people, the people will take care of you.” I have followed his advice throughout my career.

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Russo speaks before the Affordable Housing Developers Summit in Chicago in 2015. (Photo from Google Images)

BP: Were the first couple of months intimidating in the House of Representatives?

I was part of a huge freshman class of new members who had been elected to Congress because of Watergate. Most of us were pretty young and the press dubbed us the “Watergate Babies.” One of the first things we did was to challenge the seniority system, which had centralized power in the hands of older members who had been in Congress for 30 to 40 years. As a result of our demands, the power in Congress was decentralized across many committees. Because our class developed a close camaraderie, it wasn’t intimidating to be a freshman member of Congress – it was exciting.

BP: Was there anybody in Congress who took you under their wing and helped you along the way?

I was very fortunate to have several mentors: Speaker [of the House] Tip O’Neill and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Dan Rostenkowski. They were world-class leaders who taught me how to make problems into opportunities.

BP: Sports were a big part of your life in Washington, D.C. You were one of the best golfers in Congress, among other things. Did participating in activities like these help you interact more with prominent figures in government whom you would otherwise not have been able to?

Because of sports, I made lifelong friends on both sides of the political aisle. We had a running basketball game in the House gym where we all played hard on the court, but afterward went out to dinner as friends. My regular paddleball partner for 12 years was President George H. W. Bush. I played in the Congressional baseball game for many years. My involvement in golf led me to become close friends with President Gerald Ford after he left office – which was strange considering I got elected to Congress because of the anger over his pardon of President Nixon. To me, sports transcend politics.

BP: You were on the Ways and Means Committee in Congress. Was that one of your biggest moments in Washington?

We accomplished a lot for America, despite divided government – Republicans controlled the White House and Senate and Democrats controlled the House.  We made major advances in tax and immigration reform and saved Social Security and Medicare. We found a way to work together and compromise for the good of the country.

BP: You were pals with presidents, vice presidents, etc. Will Congress ever return to a relationship where [both sides] treat each other with respect, or is there too much of a gap dividing them?

The American people must start electing public officials who put the country above ideology. Right now, the legislative districts are drawn to elect ideologues rather than moderates. For the past 20 years, Republicans have emphasized getting control of state legislatures and governorships. This gives them free reign to design federal legislative districts that benefit extreme Republicans at the expense of Democrats. Democrats need to get more active in the states so we can level the playing field. The 2018 and 2020 state elections are critical to the redistricting that follows the 2020 census. If more moderates can be elected, we will have a much better chance of returning to respectful discourse.

BP: What were your initial thoughts after Trump won the election?

Like 99 percent of the country, I was surprised. But whenever your name is on the ballot, there is a chance to win.

BP: How do you think Trump won?

I’m not sure we know the full story on Russian interference and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey’s unprecedented actions. But I do know that the Democratic Party has not paid enough attention to the Rust Belt voters who are hurting from trade deals and the reduction of our industrial base.

BP: Trump has vowed to do things that appeal to Democrats, like spending more on infrastructure, keeping social security, etc. Will Democrats in Congress work with him on these issues, or will they reject everything he does, like what Republicans did to Obama?

That is playing out right now. I will be watching it closely just like everyone else.

BP: Do any of Trump’s cabinet appointees scare you in their respective fields?

It’s still early. What would scare me most is if a cabinet appointee doesn’t stand up and say “no” to the White House when proposals are illegal or not in the best interests of America.

BP: You were a proponent of universal healthcare and sponsored a bill in 1991 called “Universal Healthcare Act”. With Obamacare being potentially repealed and replaced, has the march towards universal healthcare taken a step back?

Healthcare is one of the most basic rights of all Americans. I sincerely hope that cooler heads will prevail and Congress will fix the parts of the Affordable Care Act that need fixing and not pull the rug out from under the 20 million people who are covered. Medicare for all is the best answer and would help control costs. I still have hope for the future.

BP: Political correctness is a hot topic among Americans. Is political correctness partly a reason why Democrats lost the election, and will Democrats need to focus more on issues that matter to Americans?

I don’t consider being respectful to everyone as being politically correct. I think Democrats need to focus on economic issues – helping the middle class and making sure there is a level playing field for everyone.

BP: Have U.S. politics changed drastically since you have retired or is it the same routine?

The inability to work together to debate issues and find compromise is the biggest change.  It’s a tragedy for our country. The opportunity is that I don’t think there is anyone in America right now who feels that “elections don’t matter.” Seeing people protesting and expressing their views is a good first step. But it’s all about winning elections and getting people at the state and federal level who care about the country and who are willing to make deals and compromise for the good of all Americans. 

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