Lee Daniels began his long career in the Illinois legislature by doing the unthinkable. He voted for a Democrat.
It was, in retrospect, a strange start.
Daniels is now a special assistant to Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray, working on government and community relations, but for 32 years he represented Elmhurst and other western suburbs in Springfield. For 20 of those years—from 1983 to 2003—he was the Illinois House Republican leader, the chief defender of his party’s honor and its legislative agenda. For a two-year period, from 1995 to 1997, the Republicans seized control of the house and Daniels became Speaker, a time he remembers as particularly glorious.
“Republicans in Illinois were smiling,” he says. “We were all happy.”
As the ranking Republican in the House and a skilled rhetorician, it fell to Daniels to do verbal battle with whatever champion Illinois Democrats sent forward. Most often it was the Chicago powerhouse Michael Madigan, the man who famously took his time vacating his Springfield office when Daniels took the Speaker’s job away from him in 1995. Their confrontations were not to be missed.
“There were times,” Daniels says, “when it probably was a good thing we didn’t have weapons with us on the House floor, because we would have done each other in.”
Daniels was elected to the legislature in 1974, in the wake of Watergate, one of the few Republicans anywhere to be elected to anything. “Thank God for DuPage County,” he says now of the staunchly Republican district that bucked the national trends then to send him to Springfield.
But behind the partisan ardor and the legendary competitiveness, Daniels is, like all good politicians, also a pragmatist. He has always understood the need to pick his fights.
Back in 1975, for example, he arrived in the capital with a rookie’s eagerness to get to work. Instead, he found a House so divided that it could not even complete the basic business of electing a speaker. Democrats held a 104 to 73 advantage in the House at the time, but were spilt between Chicago and downstate factions. Weeks of negotiations and maneuvering produced no viable candidate for speaker. Ballot after ballot ended in stalemate.
The deadlock persisted over a record 93 ballots. Progress was astonishingly slow. One roll call took eight hours to complete. Daniels’s patience frayed.
“It was going on for too long,” Daniels recalls. “So I did the unthinkable.”
Daniels crossed party lines to cast a decisive vote for a compromise candidate, a Democrat from Bensenville named Bill Redmond. The legislators then moved on to other business, but for Daniels the fallout was immediate and personal.
“I was condemned on the House floor. One guy walked out of a room when I walked in,” he said. Daniels was pushed to the back of the line for office assignments. He found that staff secretaries were reluctant to work for him. One veteran legislator reassured Daniels that the shunning was nothing personal and that it would fade soon. Then that same legislator took the microphone on the House floor and called Daniels “a snake in the grass.”
“I felt betrayed,” Daniels said. “I know that what I had done was pretty big. But it was time to get to work. It was time to get on with the people’s business. I have a low tolerance for delay.”
Geography, in Illinois politics, is a kind of destiny. Redmond, the man Daniels helped make speaker 37 years ago, shared with Daniels a background in DuPage County. In fact, Redmond had once run for state’s attorney for DuPage against Daniels’s grandfather, and lost. Their shared history bound Daniels and Redmond. Years later, the Chicago Tribune quoted Daniels on Redmond: “In the years when my grandfather was taken by ill health after some major surgery, Bill Redmond was a real gentleman to him and treated him with a great deal of kindness. I don’t think you forget things like that, and I don’t think you should.”
It is a point of pride for Daniels that he has not forgotten his political and familial roots. He was born into Illinois politics. He traveled a path blazed by his grandfather, Lee E. Daniels, who served in the House from 1956 to 1962. “I was educated in the school of politics from age five,” Daniels says. His grandfather, for whom he is named, was already state’s attorney for DuPage County when Daniels was born in 1942. As a kindergartener, Daniels was enlisted to hand out campaign literature. The experience, and a childhood filled with talk of campaigns and elections, made an impression on him. It was a lesson in the value of retail politics, of precinct organizations, of personal connection.
“I learned to be straightforward, to let people know who you are,” Daniels said. “And I learned not to ring doorbells during Bears games.”
The lessons stuck. In 1964, Daniels met Patrick Durante, now the chairman of the Addison Township Republic organization. The two were members of DuPage County’s Young Republicans, and they remain friends.
“He was a rising star, and I watched him rise,” Durante said. “I was a few years older than him, but he was already a pro at that age, more mature in some ways. That came from walking precincts with his grandfather.
“You knew he was going places.”
If Daniels was going places, he always remained firmly rooted in the hometown and family that had shaped him.
To this day, he maintains offices in the downtown Elmhurst building that became home to the law firm his grandfather launched in 1929. Walk in any direction from the building, and you will run into some bit of his personal history. As a grade-schooler, he played games of pickup football with his neighborhood buddies a couple blocks west of there, on the Elmhurst College Mall. He was educated at York High School, just down the street. His first real job was in the men’s department of the Elm Department Store, just on the other side of the Chicago and North Western tracks.
Later, after he had graduated from the University of Iowa and John Marshall Law School, his father recruited him as a clerk in the family law firm. He would soon become a full partner. When it came time for Daniels to settle down and start a family, he did so in Elmhurst, where he still lives today with his wife, Pam. He says he never really considered making his home anywhere else.
“You can’t just pack up and leave, even if there are times when you want to,” Daniels said. “Your roots keep you here.”
Now Daniels works at the oak desk he inherited from his father, his view encompassing his hometown and the railroad tracks and the trains that never stop arriving and departing.
“Ninety-seven trains a day,” he says.
Given the depth of his local roots, there is a kind of narrative logic about the work Daniels is doing now at Elmhurst College. He was named to his current post in 2011, but even before that he had been a longtime champion of the College. His work in the state House helped the College secure funding for capital projects like the building of Illinois and North halls on the Elmhurst campus. The College paid tribute to Daniels in 2008 by rededicating the former Computer Science and Technology Center in his honor.
The following year, Assistant Professor Jennifer Boyle, the chair of Elmhurst’s political science department, invited Daniels to teach classes in state, local and federal government. For some retired politicians, that would have meant standing in front of a classroom full of mystified young people recounting political battles of the past. Daniels, though, was determined to learn the teacher’s craft, to master the building of a syllabus and the structuring of a lecture. He apprenticed by team-teaching with another professor before daring to fly solo.
“I never thought the average person could walk into a classroom and immediately be a good teacher,” Daniels said. “It’s a whole other level of responsibility.”
Daniels did have one advantage, though: His political gifts have proven useful in the classroom.
“The way he connects with his constituents is the same way he connects with his students,” Boyle said. “He’s very interested in people, and he’s conscientious. He gives his teaching a tremendous amount of thought.”
Since being named a special assistant to the president, Daniels’s portfolio has grown. Elmhurst is planning an expansion of Schaible Science Center and is looking to develop off-campus satellite locations for its new adult-education wing. Daniels is involved in both efforts. He provides the College with the sort of connection to state office-holders that it has never had before.
His presence has also helped to raise the College’s profile. Daniels has brought newsmakers including U.S. Senator Mark Kirk and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to campus as guest speakers, and he has been instrumental in the development of the College’s Governmental Forum, an annual event that for six years has brought together some of the region’s foremost government and civic leaders, business experts and policy analysts to discuss Illinois’s most urgent economic and governance issues. This year’s forum, scheduled for January 30, 2013, will focus on jobs, education and the economy and is open to the public. Moderated by John Engler, the Business Roundtable president and former governor of Michigan, this year's forum also features three leading CEOs: Thomas A. Kloet of the Toronto Stock Exchange, Douglas R. Oberhelman of Caterpillar and Desiree Rogers of Johnson Publishing.
It has been six years since Daniels left the Illinois legislature, and it hasn’t escaped his notice that the state’s political landscape has only grown bleaker in his absence. Illinois had already earned a national reputation for public corruption; according to one count, about 1,500 officials over the last four decades have been convicted of crimes like extortion, bribery, tax fraud and embezzlement. Four former Illinois governors have gone to prison. And now the state finds itself in an unprecedented financial mess. Illinois’s auditor general this summer called the state budget deficit of $43.8 billion easily the nation’s worst. Yet the state’s political leadership has so far been unable to produce many answers.
The problem, as Daniels sees it, is plain. The political parties have forgotten how to work together. “Everything is contentious and partisan now. There is a complete lack of any cooperative mechanism,” he said. “The whole system is dysfunctional.”
Wait, Lee Daniels, scourge of Illinois Democrats, is bemoaning the lack of bipartisan spirit? Not enough hand-holding and good fellowship in the halls of the state capitol? What gives?
“Lee could be confrontational when he had to be, but he also knew how to compromise,” said Durante, the Addison Township Republican chairman. “In those days, Democrats and Republicans worked together. You’d be calling each other names all day, but later you’d get together in the bar and talk about it. That doesn’t happen in this day and age.”
Daniels, too, remembers a time when Illinois politicians knew how to get things done. Back in 1983, when Illinois was in the midst of another budget crisis, Daniels engineered a temporary tax increase designed to get the state through the worst of the shortfall without setting the excise in stone. Of course, that crisis looks trivial compared to today’s mess.
“We identified problems and tackled them,” Daniels said. “Today we’re on the verge of a serious financial cliff. The state is crying for leadership. Get it done!”
Even some of Daniels’s erstwhile political nemeses seem to wish he were back in the game. When his old rival Madigan spoke at Elmhurst this year, he urged Daniels to run for governor. And Daniels has, in the past, spoken openly of his political ambitions: At one time, the U.S. Senate seemed like a goal worth considering. But now, he says, that time has passed. He is finished with the campaigning and the fundraising and the time away from family. He is finished with the early mornings and the long flights in twin-engine planes to distant burgs.
“It’s time for new people to do that job,” he said.
He is now more focused on his work for Elmhurst. Daniels has given the College a presence in places where it had barely registered before. “One of the things a leading institution needs to do to serve its students and society is to engage other institutions and individuals in leadership roles,” said Jim Winters, Elmhurst’s vice president for communications and public affairs. “Lee helps us to do that at a high level. He is respected everywhere he goes, and that respect has enabled him to advance the College’s cause.”
Daniels is a longtime friend of the College, but his most enduring impact may be yet to come. If he can help Elmhurst win state funds for its science-center expansion—and do it amid the complicated budget wrangling in Springfield—it would be a coup on par with Daniels’s biggest victories. This remains a particularly tricky time to be funding capital projects, but it’s never been a good idea to bet against a veteran vote-getter like Daniels.
When a visitor asked Daniels if he liked campaigning, if he thrived on the challenge of convincing people and earning their trust, he paused briefly before answering.
“I like winning,” he said.