Editorial on Ray LaHood's departure.
It was a close call for this newspaper's editorial board in the 1994 race for the 18th Congressional District seat being vacated by 38-year fixture Bob Michel. Indeed, on most issues, it was difficult to tell the difference between the House minority leader's longtime aide, Republican Ray LaHood, and Peoria attorney Doug Stephens, the Democrat.
What ultimately tipped the balance in LaHood's favor, then and ever since, was his record of local community service. We endorsed Ray LaHood less to be the congressman in the 18th, tackling the globe's big issues, than to effectively be its mayor, a trait he acknowledged himself while winning his seventh -- and now it seems his final -- term last November.
While some of his issue positions evolved, his mayoral approach to the job never changed.
A relaxed LaHood announced last week that 14 years on Capitol Hill and 30 years of public service in total are plenty, and that he will not be seeking re-election in 2008. The family who flanked LaHood at his Friday morning press conference will get his undivided time and attention now, which he -- and they -- have earned following too many parades and chicken dinners and flights back and forth to count.
We can't say this was a great surprise, as LaHood sent multiple signals the last couple of years that he was tiring of the grind. Among them were his flirtation with a run for governor and his recent expression of interest in the presidency at Bradley University. At 61, he is of retirement age. Democrats now control Congress. As he said, "Now is the right time."
LaHood is certainly leaving on his own terms, as he had a virtual lock on a Republican-leaning district where Democrats have failed to mount a serious challenge in what seems like forever. Even in a bad year for the GOP, he got 67 percent of the vote this last time around. Twice -- 1998 and 2002 -- he had no competition at all. Never an ideologue, mostly moderate in practice, LaHood fit his district, where he preferred to be.
Certainly he'll be remembered for that, even if he sometimes took the parochialism to excess by involving himself in local matters most members of Congress would have steered clear of. He was a reliable vote for central Illinois farmers, for trade issues of interest to Caterpillar, for the Illinois River. He said Friday that among the accomplishments he's justifiably proud of were the establishment of Peoria's federal health clinic, a soon-to-be-launched Downstate Cancer Center and the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
While it has not yet borne fruit, his leadership on Peoria's museum also has been laudable.
Enduring images certainly would include his chairing the initial debate on the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton, as well as his arrival with George W. Bush on Air Force One after persuading the president to visit central Illinois last January.
Over the years this page had its share of differences with LaHood -- on the path he chose for a Peoria-to-Chicago highway, on some political allegiances we found compromising, on his unwavering and, it sometimes seemed, unquestioning support for the administration's war in Iraq. The latter in particular soured some constituents, as evidenced by their commentary on this page.
But ultimately we choose to recall and respect the Ray LaHood who was an independent voice for central Illinois -- refusing to sign Newt Gingrich's Contract With America in 1994, declining to go along when there was considerable pressure to do so on some deficit-exploding tax cuts, voting against the civil-rights-eroding provisions of the Patriot Act in 2005.
And we'll remember the common-sense, campaign-is-over calls for get-it-done bipartisanship when most were silent. Anybody who could operate with opposites like House Minority Leader John Boehner and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel must be doing something special.
'"If people would work together in Washington the way we work together in central Illinois, think what great things could be done," LaHood said Friday.
All in all, it has been quite a run for an East Bluff guy whose Lebanese grandparents came through Ellis Island as immigrants, whose career began in the classroom and ended up in Congress.
Expect a virtual free-for-all in the upcoming effort to succeed LaHood in a congressional seat that, from Abraham Lincoln to Everett Dirksen and beyond, has taken a back seat to none in terms of influence. For the great majority of the past century, it has been warmed by someone from the Peoria-Pekin area, which has brought us no small amount of clout on Capitol Hill. We'll keep our fingers crossed that that doesn't change.
"I truly believe that public service is a noble profession," Peoria's congressman said Friday. To our knowledge, Ray LaHood never did anything to make it less so. For that, he can go with "head held high," as can the central Illinoisans who repeatedly elected him. May we be able to say the same of the office's future occupants.
Peoria Journal Star