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"It quickly became apparent to me that most policy is driven by the budget, rather than the other way around."

 

Leaders rising

Neither Christine Radogno nor Susana Mendoza intended to go into politics. Yet these state lawmakers show natural political savvy

by Christopher Wills

Throughout the year, Illinois Issues will publish occasional mini-profiles of some of the state's rising public officials. These are the first two.

All Christine Radogno wanted was to prevent a fire station from opening on her quiet residential street. The next thing she knew, 25 years had passed and she's a state senator wading through the details of health care and budget deficits.

The Lemont Republican sounds like an innocent bystander caught up by circumstances when she describes her political career. "I still am surprised I'm here," she says. "It's not something I ever thought I would be doing."

But she has blended brains, legislative skill and PR abilities to become, in essence, the Senate Republicans' voice on budget issues and a potential candidate for higher office.

"She is a great person. I think Chris is exactly the kind of leadership that not just the Republican Party but the entire General Assembly should be excited about," says Sen. Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin, who has been the Senate GOP's chief budget negotiator for a decade. "I find myself learning from Chris because she has such a fresh perspective."

Radogno got into politics when she ran for the La Grange Village Board to fight the fire station. She says, "It was a total [not in my back yard] thing."

A few years later, she was asked to run for the Illinois House. She declined because of her young children, but she says the offer got her thinking. Those thoughts turned to action later when she grew dissatisfied with the performance of state Sen. Robert Raica, a Chicago Republican. She beat him in the 1996 primary and then won the general election.

Since then, she has tackled a wide range of issues, from local (road projects and troublesome landfills) to statewide (requiring hospitals to offer emergency contraception to rape victims).

Trained as a social worker, Radogno took an interest in health and human services. She has pushed to move the state toward community care of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, rather than institutionalization. She has advocated managed care to control costs in state health programs.

Radogno says she soon realized that getting things done in Springfield would require getting to know the state budget.

"It quickly became apparent to me that most policy is driven by the budget, rather than the other way around," she says. "The fact of the matter is, there is just a certain amount of money to go around. The budgeting process is a lot of needs competing against each other."

When the Senate's Republican leader, Frank Watson of Greenville, wanted someone to join Rauschenberger in handling the budget, he turned to Radogno.

"They made a good selection when they chose Chris Radogno," says Sen. Donne Trotter, who oversees budget matters in the Senate Democratic caucus. "She knows how to discuss things; she does not have tunnel vision."

"She's not a push-over," he adds, noting that Radogno defeated fellow Republican Sen. William Mahar in 2002 after the two were placed in the same district by legislative redistricting.

Radogno threw herself into learning the budget. Radogno and Rauschenberger jointly represented the caucus in negotiations. When Rauschenberger ran for the U.S. Senate two years ago, he ceded to Radogno most of the public duties of arguing the caucus' positions. She stepped forward to speak to editorial boards and present proposals at news conferences.

She has often found herself arguing against new programs — the governor's All Kids health insurance plan, for instance, or a requirement that schools and gyms buy life-saving portable defibrillators.

Rauschenberger says she has been able to do that without perpetuating stereotypes of hard-hearted Republicans, and Trotter agrees. He praises Radogno for understanding the state's obligations to the needy and helping push other Republicans to meet those obligations.

"She's been a very strong voice," Trotter says. "Chris believes in building partnerships."

Radogno says she also has been able to speak out against Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich without alienating Senate Democrats. In part, that's because she avoids making issues personal. And in part, she says, that's because many Senate Democrats share her concerns about the Blagojevich Administration.

Radogno supports abortion rights but backs some restrictions, such as parental notification. She tends to oppose gun control measures. Her mix of personality and political views has made her a potential candidate for higher office.

She opted against a run for lieutenant governor, but after Judy Baar Topinka announced plans to seek the governor's office, Radogno decided to run for treasurer, the office Topinka has held for the last decade.

By the way, the fire station that Radogno wanted to keep off her street? It was never built.

 

Susana Mendoza once escaped a near-riot in a foreign land and emerged with a new buddy. It was a lot like working in the Illinois House.

In the middle of her third term, Mendoza has built a reputation as someone who doesn't lose her calm, or her enthusiasm, amid the chaos of the House floor. Her energy and informal style — words like "totally" and "wow" often pop up in her conversations — have helped her build friendships with lawmakers from both parties.

And she's done it while pushing serious legislation, particularly tough-on-crime measures such as a requirement that anyone arrested for a felony submit a DNA sample to be kept on file.

Her foreign adventure came two summers ago, when Mendoza and Minnesota lawmaker Erik Paulsen were touring Brazil to discuss American democracy and politics under the auspices of the U.S. State Department.

An appearance at the University of Rio de Janeiro turned ugly. The crowd of students grew increasingly rowdy, yelling and threatening the pair with fake anthrax. With no guards to calm the crowd, Mendoza and Paulsen eventually decided the smart move was to leave.

They fled, running and stumbling to a nearby van with the crowd at their heels. When the van's engine died, the crowd — some of them masked — surrounded the vehicle, pounding it and smashing at least one window before the driver could get it re-started and escape.

Now the Chicago Democrat and Minnesota Republican keep in touch and share legislative ideas. Paulsen got a version of Mendoza's DNA-sample legislation approved, and she is looking into his idea about tax breaks for living organ donors.

"I was really impressed with Susana. It was really easy for us to get along and discuss things civilly," Paulsen says. "She's definitely a real fireball."

Mendoza says she never wanted to be a politician. In fact, she grew up in an immigrant household where politicians were held in low regard. But after college (she went to Northeast Missouri State on a soccer and academic scholarship), she volunteered to help Ray Frias' campaign for Chicago alderman and ended up as his press secretary after he was elected.

Eventually, Frias suggested Mendoza run for the Illinois House. She did, and lost by 55 votes. Mendoza says she was crushed and "pouted like a baby" until Frias accused her of being a quitter. Then she decided she had tried as hard as she possibly could and had nothing to be ashamed of.

She resolved to try again — starting at that moment. "I went right back into it. I basically campaigned for two years."

This time, she won and immediately began targeting criminals.

In her first session, as Gov. George Ryan was calling attention to problems with capital punishment, Mendoza succeeded in getting legislation passed that expanded the death penalty to cover any killing related to gang activity.

That bill was vetoed, but Mendoza has continued her emphasis on crime. She got legislation passed to eliminate the three-year statute of limitations for prosecuting drivers in hit-and-run accidents. She sponsored the DNA-sample bill and got a $250,000 grant out of the Blagojevich Administration for CeaseFire, the anti-gang program in her district.

Mendoza says her strong feelings about crime reach back to her childhood, when gang problems in her Chicago neighborhood led her family to move to the suburbs. "We were basically run out of our neighborhood," she says.

While expressing concern about problems that contribute to crime, Mendoza chooses to concentrate on protecting victims and punishing criminals. "I don't want to spend my time focusing on the reasons why that individual pulled the trigger."

Crime hasn't been her only concern, however. Mendoza has sponsored legislation promoting stem-cell research, requiring more schools to offer breakfast programs and giving people who obtain payday loans a way to improve their credit scores.

Mendoza also has a goofy side that she doesn't try to disguise.

She talks about criminals crossing over to the dark side and then mocks herself for using "a cheesy cliche from Star Wars." When she reads a newspaper column declaring "Sweet Home Alabama" the greatest rock song of all time, she writes in and argues: "Great song ... yes. Greatest rock and roll song of all time ... no way. Thought it my civic duty to bring this to your attention."

Lawmakers of both parties say Mendoza's fun-loving style makes her an effective advocate for the needs of her district.

"She has been very, very important in communicating the concerns of our community to people who otherwise wouldn't have a clue," says her seatmate, Rep. Dan Burke, a Chicago Democrat. "She's certainly young enough and energetic enough and has the sophistication to launch a campaign for higher office. ... The political world is her oyster."


Christopher Wills is the Statehouse bureau chief of The Associated Press.

llinois Issues, January 2006

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