He was the young, up-and-coming poster boy for Illinois conservatives. With his mantra of "less government, lower taxes, more freedom," he bested all the naysayers and party regulars to knock off the heavily backed GOP favorite in the Republican primary. He upset the apple cart, made headlines and had ambition.
Yet on Wednesday, while all the tea party candidates and a gaggle of young conservative Republicans took their oaths of office in Washington, Al Salvi sits at home in Wauconda waiting for Sears to deliver his family's new washer and dryer.
Joining Salvi as he answers the door is his nearly 10-year-old golden retriever, Hope.
"If we had known about Obama, we probably would have come up with a different name," quips a grinning Salvi, who knows that I support Obama, have never voted for any Salvi campaigns and am as liberal as he is conservative.
Rich, educated and happily married with six kids, Salvi was the great hope of Illinois conservatives in 1996 when, as a largely unremarkable state rep, he knocked off party favorite Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra to win the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat that had been held by Paul Simon.
In the general election, where Salvi, who opposes abortion and supports gun rights (although he never even went hunting until last winter), was branded as "too extreme." He used information gleaned from the fledgling Internet to wrongly accuse gun-control advocate Jim Brady of once selling machine guns. Salvi quickly withdrew the false allegation and apologized for getting the wrong Jim Brady, but his campaign suffered. Democrat Dick Durbin cruised to victory during a Democratic landslide. Salvi rebounded to win the 1998 GOP nomination for secretary of state but was easily defeated by Democrat Jesse White. Salvi's wife, Kathy, a lawyer who works alongside her husband in their Waukegan law firm, ran unsuccessfully in 2006 for the 8th Congressional District House seat now occupied by Joe Walsh, the Republican with the tea party roots. And the Salvis returned to family and law.
"Weren't you Al Salvi?" a store clerk asked Salvi recently after perusing his credit card identifying him as Albert Salvi.
"I still am," Salvi says.
Suggest Salvi's smarter, a better businessman and a more qualified candidate than new Congressman Joe Walsh, and Salvi shows his political ability.
"In retrospect, everything happened just right," Salvi says. While Salvi and his wife supported another Republican in the primary, they say they voted for Walsh in the general election and are happy that the lightly regarded conservative candidate eked out a victory over incumbent Democrat Melissa Bean.
"If we had nominated somebody the Democrats were more afraid of, I think they would have taken it more seriously," Salvi says diplomatically.
"I could see what was coming," Salvi says, recounting the moment when he knew Walsh would win. Vocal Walsh supporters swamped a League of Women Voters debate and, after it was noted that the Pledge of Allegiance never was on the agenda for those events, staged a recitation that got posted on the Internet and ended up getting lots of airtime on conservative talk shows and cable.
"Fox News? Pledge of Allegiance? This thing is over," Salvi remembers thinking. "It was a beautiful moment -- if you enjoy the sport of politics. For days afterward, I was laughing my head off."
The son of Democrats who boasted photos of John Kennedy and the pope in their home and a McGovern bumper sticker on their car, Salvi headed the University of Notre Dame student campaign for Jimmy Carter while in college. While he has siblings who support Obama and donate to Democrats, Salvi switched political parties just like Ronald Reagan did, in part, he says, because of Reagan's upbeat message. The Salvi's cat is named Esperanza, which is "Hope" in Spanish.
Salvi urges all those Republicans going to Washington without him to "not just attack," but to "be positive." The Salvi family motto for 2011 written on the kitchen dry-erase board reads, "Always look on the bright side of life -- Monty Python." Salvi does that.
"Man, I'd love to be here," he says pointing to a newspaper photo of the GOP's new House majority leader, Eric Cantor, in Washington. Salvi turned 50 last year and won't rule out running for something after his kids (his youngest is 12) get older. But he insists he's "happy and excited" for those upstart conservatives who finished a race he only started.
"They will vote the way I would vote," Salvi says, "and I get to go to my kids' hockey games."