Exclusive interview: Kirk hopes to be remembered for actions, not rhetoric
After 16 years in elected office and a quarter-century in federal government, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk of Highland Park is closing a chapter that has consumed his days and defined his identity.
In the midst of shutting down his Washington, D.C., and Illinois offices after his loss in the Nov. 8 election, Kirk, in an exclusive interview with the Daily Herald, reflected on the successes and missteps of his political career, including some controversial statements he says he hopes he won't be solely remembered for.
Here's an edited transcript of that interview:
Q. You lost a re-election bid to Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth by a sizable margin. Was it a surprise?
A. I had hoped we had made more of a bipartisan case to Illinois voters. My pollsters had said we were earning about 22 percent of the Democratic vote. Obviously, that did not prove to be the case.
Q. You've billed yourself as an independent, moderate Republican since you were first elected to represent the 10th Congressional District in 2000. Is there a place for such moderates today?
A. I had hoped to create middle ground based on social moderation and spending moderation, which is increasingly necessary for the future of the country.
I always sought to be a problem solver, thinking about not being with the extreme right and extreme left. And my model was always a 45-year-old married woman with children who lives in Arlington Heights in Illinois, which might be the geographic center of common sense.
Q. Do you think you would have had more success running as a party-line Republican rather than as a moderate in this election?
A. I don't. I felt that either way, I just needed to be the voice for Illinois, and Illinois would be prouder of its lead senator who said that he was a member of the Republican party and disagreed with X and Y. So often people surrender their opinions to party leaders. We need to have someone who will just call it the way they see it.
Q. Do you feel you should have had more help from the national Republican Party in terms of money and campaign assistance? Are you bitter about that?
A. I made that case and because we did not prevail, I guess those people who were pessimistic about us may have been more right about the future than I was.
If the Republicans give up on Illinois, then I think they're resigned to making it a one-party state.
But I've always felt that you cannot let the fifth-largest economy in the U.S. be a one-party state.
Q. Was it a mistake for you to criticize President-elect Donald Trump so much?
A. No, as it turned out, there was an anti-Trump landslide (in the suburbs) that hurt both Sen. Kirk and (10th District GOP) congressman (Bob) Dold.
Q. Let's talk about your time in office. What do you consider to be some of your proudest moments?
A. Carrying the mantle of (the late Illinois Republican Sen.) Everett Dirksen by being a (proponent of) marriage equality, of the employment nondiscrimination act.
One of my proudest physical achievements is the creation of Lovell VA hospital in North Chicago. Regarding dealing with the mistreatment of veterans in veterans administration hospitals around the country, I was able to get on the horn with the secretary of veterans affairs quite a bit. We even had the deputy White House chief of staff come out to meet with some of the whistleblowers at Hines (VA hospital near Maywood).
Q. How difficult was it to return to work and keep a full schedule after your 2012 stroke?
A. I had to learn how to write again, how to walk again. I remember very clearly the day I learned to walk again where I just had a vision of my left leg as a dead tuna on my hip. As long as I could balance on the vertebrae of that tuna, I figured out that rhythm.
I did adjust (my) schedule some. You do all the events a senator had to do, and all the votes and committee hearings and you could perform the duties necessary. But I would get exhausted ... I learned that if I would close my office doors and take a 20-minute nap, I could just bounce back completely.
Q. Beginning with the time you were former U.S. Rep. John Porter's chief of staff, you've spent more than 25 years working in Washington. What's next for you?
A. My general direction of my career was to make sure the government had good representation in the national capital. It's where I feel I can make the most difference.
I have to look for a board or organization that can advance cases that are near and dear to my heart. I want to especially support the (U.S.) Export-Import Bank. I've been thinking about someplace where I can help out the safety and security of Israel, make sure that the Kirk legacy of building an alliance with Israel is continued.
I may be planning a business trip to China soon, for officials to develop better relationships with the Chinese.
Q. You have a home in Highland Park and one in Washington, D.C. Will you keep both?
A. I'll be dividing my time for the foreseeable future, yes.
Q. Are you concerned about Trump's upcoming decisions on foreign relations? What's your opinion of Trump's transition so far?
A. I think time will tell. Trump certainly is more successful as a president-elect than I thought he'll be.
I had a 15-year relationship with Mike Pence, who was a classmate of mine in the House. I was very happy to see Vice President Pence. He's a very stable guy.
Q. How do you hope to be remembered for your time in office?
A. I'm ready to start the next chapter. I will be highly inclined to join nongovernment organizations, in particular making sure key medical treatment for stroke victims, technology and therapy are available across Illinois.
I hope I'm remembered as a careful, incremental legislator, a bipartisan lawmaker. Someone who was in the end not judged by the heat of his rhetoric but by the effectiveness of his actions.
Q. Is that an acknowledgment that you regret some slips of the tongue?
A. I do ... you know, when you enter into this, you learn painfully that lesson I learned from the last campaign. When you're in a tight race, you can't have a sense of humor. But a sense of humor is so essential in life.