'Serve ... as best as you can': 4 departing lawmakers reflect on highs, lows in Springfield

'Serve ... as best as you can': 4 departing lawmakers reflect on highs, lows in Springfield

The legislative careers of about a dozen state lawmakers from the North, West and Northwest suburbs will end when the 101st General Assembly convenes Jan. 9 and its newest members take their seats.

Some departing lawmakers, like Vernon Hills Democrat Carol Sente and Arlington Heights Republican David Harris, chose not to seek re-election. Others, like Republicans Tom Rooney of Rolling Meadows and David Olsen of Downers Grove, were unseated by challengers.

Those four politicians agreed to talk to us about the highs and lows of their public service — and their plans for the future. Some answers have been edited.

Q. What advice do you have for your successor?

State Rep. David Harris, 66th District: My advice to any new legislator would be to serve your constituents as best as you can. Many of them will not agree with all your positions on issues, but be responsive and give them the best service you can.

State Rep. David Olsen, 81st District: Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good. In government, and especially in our diverse state, there are so many perspectives, views and interests, making it often difficult to achieve consensus. Progress, on any issue, happens incrementally, not all at once. If you work collaboratively with legislators on both sides of the political aisle with a willingness to recognize alternate perspectives and achieve compromise, you can accomplish good things for the people of our communities.

State Sen. Tom Rooney, 27th District: I'd give anyone who comes to Springfield the same advice, including any new legislators: (You) might as well get rid of all your thoughts about how Springfield works, because it doesn't work that way.

State Rep. Carol Sente, 59th District: My advice for my successor and any new legislator is to ask questions and listen more than you talk, to learn how things are done for a bit before forging your own ways — but don't necessarily feel compelled to conform. Be open-minded, compassionate, hardworking (and) a bipartisan problem solver. Build strong relationships before you need them. Share the credit — and the microphone. Walk a mile in someone else's shoes before judging, and do your best to represent your district in a balanced fashion.

Q: Of what accomplishment are you most proud?

Harris: During my 18 years of service, I was a member of the House revenue committee and I also served for eight years on an appropriations committee. I am especially proud of the expertise I had on revenue and budget issues because of that service and the respect that my colleagues graciously showed me because of that expertise. I am also proud of the fact that I helped lead the Republican effort to break the two-year budget impasse that was destroying our state financially.

Olsen: In 2018, I was able to pass 12 bills into law — more than any other Republican member of the House of Representatives. These new laws promote efficiency and cost savings in state government, ease barriers to government consolidation, ensure counselors in our schools are property qualified, strengthen human rights protections, help our service members, veterans and their families, and so much more. ... Each bill that became law was a bipartisan effort, gathering input from all stakeholders and carefully crafting legislation to find a balance that could achieve majority support. ... Solutions require listening to others and compromise, and I'm proud I was able achieve this in many areas during my tenure.

Rooney: I'm most proud of helping the (2017) bill that renewed and expanded the scope of practice for advanced practice nurses. The job that APNs do is such a critical piece in the health care puzzle, and I got to play a small but key part in getting the bill passed.

Sente: If I had to pick one, it would be the student-led legislation. Suffrage at 17 and guaranteed Advanced Placement credit at a public university or college for a test grade of 3 or higher were two student-led ideas. The ability to work directly with students to pass legislation that was their idea was particularly rewarding because the students came to realize they could turn their ideas into actual law. Particularly with the Suffrage at 17 bill, I encouraged the students to come to Springfield, help explain the bill in committee, hear the floor testimony live, and then see the governor come to their school (Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire) for the bill signing. To see the joy on the faces of the core group of students who worked on this bill leaves me with a great deal of pride.

Q. What's your biggest regret?

Harris: I never had the chance to serve in the majority during my tenure. Except for a two-year break in 1995-1996, for the past 36 years the Democrats have been the majority party in the Illinois House. I was not a member during that two-year Republican majority.

Olsen: While I'm proud of the work I did on fair (legislative) maps by sponsoring legislation, promoting this cause among my colleagues and working ... with a bipartisan group of state legislators, I regret that we weren't able to achieve a change to the Illinois system. Taking politics out of the legislative map-drawing process would be a great step toward good government in our state.

Rooney: My biggest regret was that the pension reform bill never saw the light of day in the House. Sixteen Republicans, including me, and 15 Democrats voted for the bill. It was the only real example of a bipartisan vote in the extremely partisan 2017 spring session, and it was the most serious attempt to actually make progress instead of just papering over the problem.

Sente: My two biggest regrets are that I didn't do as much as I would like to find a fair solution to the pension crisis and that I couldn't bring people together more quickly to resolve the budget impasse. The 793 days of the budget impasse seriously affected individuals' lives to a depth that we didn't always hear about and in ways that may never heal.

Q. What are your short-term and long-term plans, once you leave office?

Harris: I do not envision a return to elective politics, but I enjoy public service and I hope that I can continue to serve our great state in some way. ... As for the long term, I do not have any grandchildren yet, but if and when I do, my goal is to be the best grandfather I can be.

Olsen: Public service is a core part of my life, and I look forward to opportunities to serve the community in new ways. At the urging of many neighbors, I recently filed petitions to run for mayor of my hometown, Downers Grove. Local government plays such an important role in our communities — from public safety to streets to clean water and so much more — and I look forward to making a difference for my neighbors.

Rooney: My plans are all about my classroom. (Rooney teaches social studies at West Leyden High School in Franklin Park.) When it comes to my time in public service, I've always said that I'm good at the governing part and not so good at the politics part. Now that I've spent a couple of years at a level where the politics is way more important than the governing, I'll refocus on teaching.

Sente: I plan to build my startup consulting business, which I founded after selling my architectural practice. ... I hope to continue to stay involved in my community, county and state and am exploring other opportunities to serve which complement my skill set. This could be in the area of public, private or nonprofit service. Personally, I plan to re-engage in some of my favorite hobbies and do much more traveling, exercising, reading, hiking, skiing, biking and cooking.

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Carol Sente
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