By Mike Kroll
When the framers of our Constitution determined that the House of Representatives would be the "people's chamber" they wanted these members of Congress to be highly accountable to the voters they must face every two years. Following his initial victory in 1982 Democratic Congressman Lane Evans has sought and won that voter approval ten times as he maintained one of the most consistently liberal voting records in Congress. Evans now seeks his twelveth term in what became one of the most gerrymandered Congressional districts nationwide following the 2000 census.
First elected in the midst of Ronald Reagan's first term to a Congress making a sharp right turn Evans' core constituencies haven't wavered. Strongly supported by labor unions as well as veterans, and even many area Republicans who have been won over by an impressive record of constituent service, Evans enjoys an unlikely but loyal cadre of supporters across west central Illinois. Opponent after opponent have made much the same charges that as a liberal Democrat Evans is "out of touch with his district" to no avail. While he doesn't prevail by landslides Evans has a track record as a political survivor and an uncanny political sense. "The vast majority of the people in this district support me and what I stand for," notes Evans.
Following the September 11th attack when most of Congress simply rubber stamped edicts from the Bush administration (such as the USA Patriot Act) Evans has consistently opposed the president. "I believe I am one of Bush's top ten Congressional opponents and I am proud of that fact. The policies of this administration have had an absolutely terrible impact on most of my district. The American people are often too generous to our leaders but this administration has assaulted the very principles of this nation." Evans opposed going to war in Iraq but has consistently supported funding of that war in the interest of the troops.
In a crowded primary field for Illinois' senate seat Evans came out early in support of little know underdog Barak Obama. In the run up to the 2004 presidential campaign Evans was an early supporter of John Kerry before Kerry was even a blip on most prognosticators radar. Kerry went on to surprise victory in the Iowa caucus and Obama shocked nearly everyone by dominating a huge field of candidates to secure not just a plurality but a majority of the popular vote and the keynote address of the Democratic National convention. Asked about this Evans sits back and smiles broadly. It clearly would be a big mistake to dismiss the value of Evans' political instincts.
A native of Rock Island who earlier this month celebrated his 53rd birthday Evans comes from a working class background. He served two years in the Marines just out of high school and then went to Augustana College on the G.I. Bill. His initial exposure to Washington, D.C. occurred when he attended law school at Georgetown before returning to the Quad Cities to serve briefly as a legal aid attorney. It wasn't very long before Evans hit the campaign trail for the first time in an old Ford Pinto that carried him to his 1982 upset of longtime incumbent Republican Tom Railsback in the midst of a recession.
It's 22 years later and curiously many of the key political issues and conditions remain the same. Whereas the Bush administration has trumpeted economic recovery it's certainly not evident in west central Illinois. Times are tough in the 17th district and there hasn't been much reason for near-term optimism. Thousands of jobs have left his Congressional district, schools and local governments are hurting for tax dollars and access to education and health care is diminishing. Meanwhile, in the midst of a white-hot presidential campaign where both campaigns are regularly courting voters just across the Mississippi neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry seem especially interested in the problems that plague downstate Illinois.
As his Republican opponent Andrea Zinga proposes a Constitutional amendment to permit Congress to in effect veto the Supreme Court and impose a conservative social agenda banning abortions and gay marriage Evans came to Galesburg Tuesday to speak out against new regulations from the Department of Labor overhauling overtime. "This revision will cut the pay and lengthen the hours for workers making as little as $23,660, the the greatest impact of the regulations being felt by middle-income workers... President Bush's policies have only helped the top one percent while hurting working families and this overtime regulation is no different."
This is a quintessential Evans' position as is his support of increasing the minimum wage, strengthening OSHA workplace safety enforcement and opposition to trade policies that cost American jobs. Evans has long enjoyed support of area teachers and he opposed the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" program as an unfunded mandate that actually led to a reduction in Federal support of education. Evans supports raising educational standards for elementary and high schools but believes federal funding support must accompany the plan. Evans sees rural schools and special education as areas especially deserving of greater federal funds.
As the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs committee Evans has been openly critical of this administration's underfunding of veteran's health care and support to the dependents of service men and women. He will not accept the Bush administration's two-tiered approach to VA health benefits penalizes reservists and national guardsman returning from service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Health care is an important issue for Evans who has been fighting a public battle against Parkinson's disease. Clearly the disease has taken a toll on Evans evidenced by his speech, movement and even the struggle to smile. Undoubtedly the biggest controversy of this year's campaign has been Zinga's direct assault on Evans' health. She and her campaign have publicly taken the position that his health problems are too much of a disability to perform well in Washington.
Asked straight out about the health issue Evans denies any impact on his role in Congress. "Sure, I am facing a greater challenge but that hasn't prevented me from representing my constituents. I'm not about to retire when there is so much more to accomplish. The way I look at it, if Strom Thurmond can do the job at 100 I don't see why I can't fight for my district and against Parkinson's at the same time. This is one of the reasons I support expanded stem-cell research that is opposed by the Bush administration. Someday we just find a treatment for diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's if ideology can just get out of the way of science."