'He was that independent leader': Former suburban Congressman Porter dies

Former Congressman John E. Porter, a Republican who set a moderate tone for his north suburban district that lives on today and mentored the next generation of its political leaders, has died at age 87.

Porter's family confirmed his death Sunday, saying the former lawmaker died Friday after a recent hospitalization.

His former chief of staff and protégé Mark Kirk described the Evanston native as someone who was "complete class" and respectful to everybody.

"The whole rough-and-tumble of classless politics was anathema to his character," said Kirk, who succeeded Porter in the U.S. House before being elected U.S. Senator in 2010. "He was representing the best-educated district in the country. The district wanted an independent leader, and he was that independent leader."

Porter represented Illinois' 10th District in Congress from 1980 to 2001, establishing a record as a fiscal conservative who supported human rights efforts across the globe and efforts to protect the environment at home. He also was a strong advocate for scientific and biomedical research.

"His main legacy is in doubling funding for the National Institutes of Health and funding the unlocking of the human genome," said Kirk, who first served in Porter's office as an intern before rising to its chief of staff. "These days, when we talk about human genomic therapy, that all came from John Porter's work."

The National Institutes of Health formally recognized Porter's contributions in 2014, with the dedication of the 845,000-square-foot John Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center in Bethesda, Maryland. That same year, he was awarded the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal, the academy's highest honor.

Former state Rep. Elizabeth Coulson of Glenview said it was Porter who encouraged her to run for office. She would go on to serve seven terms in the Illinois House.

"He was my mentor," Coulson said Sunday. "I used to go in the late '80s and early '90s to his office and talk about health care legislation, because I was a health care provider and he was working on health care, and so we got to know each other really well over those issues."

Coulson called Porter a great listener who was willing to be bipartisan and bring people together. She recalled discussing the Americans with Disabilities Act with him, then being invited to join him on the House floor when he voted for the measure.

"He worked with everyone. He represented our area very, very well," she said. "We need more people like him in today's political climate."

The son of a judge. Porter told the Daily Herald in 1972 that he was raised in a home where public service was a way of life.

"A person who is dedicated and honest can drive out some cynicism people feel about public office," he said then. "It is important to get someone who is honest and recognizes when a conflict exists, and doesn't allow it."

Porter attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and graduated with a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University, before earning a law degree from the University of Michigan.

He served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1958 to 1964, and as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice in the Kennedy Administration.

Porter was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1973 and served three terms, before winning election to the 10th District seat after his predecessor, Democrat Abner Mikva, resigned to become a federal judge.

A fiscal conservative who voted for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, Porter also frequently bucked his fellow Republicans by opposing cuts in social programs and supporting global family planning programs. He also won accolades for helping to lead the successful fight for the 1994 assault weapons ban.

He was one of the "cardinals" of the House Appropriations Committee, serving as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health & Human Services and Education, his family said.

Porter stunned suburban political experts when he announced in 1999 that he would not seek reelection.

"I have the best job in America," Porter said at the time. "I loved every minute of it. I just think it's time I move on to other challenges."

When he announced his retirement, he said he was most proud of helping to double funding for biomedical research and for founding the Congressional Human Rights Caucus that draws attention to human rights abuses around the world.

"We have probably offended every single government on earth," he said, "but they deserved to be offended."

Porter is survived by his spouse, Amy, children and stepchildren, John, David, Annie, Robyn, Donna, McKay and Michelle, and 14 grandchildren.

Services will be held later this month in Virginia and the family is planning services in Illinois sometime later this summer.

Kathryn Porter wipes away a tear as her husband, U.S. Rep. John E. Porter, announces in 1999 he will not run for reelection. Associated Press, 1999
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