The rise and end: Hastert retirement announcement comes with reflection on his unlikely career
The high school wrestling coach who rose to House speaker stepped off the political mat Friday.
Congressman Denny Hastert told several hundred supporters gathered at the old Yorkville courthouse where he began his political career that he won't stand for re-election next year.
"Who would've guessed that a wrestling coach from Kendall County, Illinois, would be the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House?" said a noticeably thinner Hastert, who has lost 87 pounds since surrendering the speaker's position.
Hastert's speech was a time for both himself and his supporters to reflect on his somewhat improbable political career. The Wheaton College graduate was teaching school and coaching wrestling when he got into politics as a state representative more than a quarter-century ago.
Then Republican Congressman John Grotberg fell ill in 1986, and party leaders chose Hastert to take his ballot spot. He defeated then-Kane County Coroner Mary Lou Kearns, a Democrat, in the fall.
More of a workhorse than a show horse, Hastert quietly earned a spot in House GOP leadership. At the end of 1998, during the height of the President Clinton impeachment process, Hastert suddenly found himself as his party's choice to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker when a Louisiana congressman, Robert Livingston, dropped out after sex scandal revelations. Dubbed the "accidental speaker," Hastert would go on to become the longest-serving Republican speaker in the nation's history. For the first six years of the Bush administration, Hastert was third in line for the presidency.
Continuing the coach persona that served him well throughout his career, Hastert kept a low profile - by Washington standards - and worked to carry President Bush's agenda through the House, something the president reflected on Friday.
"He was a strong and effective speaker," Bush said in a statement. "I am indebted to Denny for his candid advice and strong support."
For Hastert, leading the House after the Sept. 11 attacks stands as his proudest achievement as speaker. Congress cut taxes, passed the Patriot Act and bailed out the airline industry.
"Our critics just didn't get it," the 65-year-old Hastert said of the tax cuts that he credits with steady job creation the past several years. "And frankly, they still don't."
Hastert also cited the creation of a Medicare prescription drug benefit and ending the estate tax as top accomplishments.
Ultimately, a series of ethics scandals involving close ally Tom DeLay, a Texas congressman, and Jack Abramoff, a Capitol Hill lobbyist, and voter frustration with the war ended Hastert's time as speaker. A handful of protesters, one of whom carried a sign that said "Hastert to Gitmo," also were present at Friday's event.
The retirement decision was expected ever since he lost his speaker's job to last fall's Democratic surge, but that didn't make it any easier for some longtime backers.
"He's one of the best speakers in the history of the Congress," said Illinois House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego, a Hastert protege. "He's taken care of issues from Chicago to Cairo. His delegation was tremendously helpful to the state and he helped Democrats."
Republican Kane County Board member Bill Wyatt of Aurora said Hastert remained down-to-earth.
"He never lost touch with the people in his district," Wyatt said. "That's what people will remember him for. Not the Prairie Parkway or any bridges or any projects."
The testimonials were bi-partisan. Democratic U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago called Hastert a "superb statesman."
While he hasn't figured out what he'll do when he leaves Congress, Hastert plans to work with Wheaton College to start an institute for students to learn politics and economics.
It also remained unclear whether he will serve out the remainder of the 11th term he won last November. Hastert remained elusive on the topic.
"I am going to serve as long as I feel I can be effective in the Congress," Hastert told reporters, echoing what he told the Daily Herald Thursday.
An early retirement before next May would set off a special election where voters would cast ballots in primary and general elections in short order. The early Feb. 5 primary could set up a complex campaign and electoral situation.
Three Republicans and three Democrats have been gearing up campaigns. The district remains Republican, although an open-seat situation gives the GOP less of a home-field advantage.
On the Republican side, state Sen. Chris Lauzen of Aurora, businessman Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove and Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns are likely to vie in the Feb. 5 primary. The Democratic primary field includes retired Fermilab scientist Bill Foster of Geneva, attorney Jotham Stein of Geneva and Kendall County's John Laesch, who lost to Hastert last year.
While Foster and Burns, who plans to start his campaign Saturday, turned out, the other four candidates kept a respectful distance on a day devoted to Hastert's swan song.
- Daily Herald staff writer Lisa Smith contributed to this report.