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Thursday, Oct. 21, 2004 12:11 am

Springfield’s unknown congressman

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As a career Quad Cities TV anchor with a three-year stint on CNN, Andrea Zinga, 54, had scheduled the press conference with a suitable TV backdrop. She would announce her 10-point education plan across the street from Millikin University's football field. But when no cameras showed up, Zinga and I and her campaign aide went into Hardee's to talk. I asked the Republican campaigning to represent me in Congress about the constitutional amendment she proposed in August to allow the U.S. Senate to overturn decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court with a 60 percent vote. She smiled. "The Chicago Tribune called it goofy." I knew that but hadn't expected her to bring it up. "It's an idea," she said. "You put ideas out there and see what kind of response you get. Do I think it's going to become an amendment to the Constitution? Not really." I infer that by now Zinga doesn't fully disagree with the Trib's assessment.

"She's also goofy on Parkinson's," said Lane Evans, the 22-year incumbent congressman I interviewed the day before in Carlinville. "She's demanding that I resign. If we start getting rid of people from the workforce who have this disease, it will be far-reaching. About 1.5 million people are living with Parkinson's. I'm still able to do the job." He has garnered considerable support from the disability community, and he's joined the push for expanded stem-cell research. During an earlier interview, Evans brought up his Parkinson's disease before I had a chance to mention it.

Back in Decatur, Zinga kept saying that Evans is "ineffective." Why? "We don't see him. We don't know him in the district." But what evidence is there? "The evidence is the loss of 12,000 manufacturing jobs from the district during his time in office." I kept trying to get her to say the P-word, but she wouldn't. So I asked what she has to say about Congressman Evans' health. "I do not bring it up. The Evans campaign talks about it constantly." Once I brought it up, she had plenty to say: "We all know somebody whose health has affected their ability to do their job." Zinga campaign manager Charlie Johnson was more blunt: "He's not just a little bit sick, he's a lot sick."

But when Zinga suggests that he has been an absentee congressman, Evans counters that he has a 98 percent voting record in the House and that he comes back to the district on most congressional breaks. And it turns out that Zinga herself has been an absentee, admitting she's voted only "sporadically" in regular elections over the past several years. She says she didn't vote in primaries because she didn't want to sacrifice her journalistic objectivity by declaring a party affiliation, and was too busy with Election Day news coverage to vote in general elections.

Evans, 53, learned he had Parkinson's in 1995 and disclosed the diagnosis in 1998. In 2000 he spent much of his campaign ad budget on TV spots showing him jogging, with the message, "If you hear someone say they're worried about Lane Evans, tell them you saw him running today and he's doing just fine." But that was four years ago. Now his voice is so quiet that he's hard to hear. When I asked him the other day if he's still jogging, he said he's too busy campaigning to work out, and he doesn't plan to use such ads this year. Then an aide helped him out of his chair and he walked, slowly and stiffly, over to shake some hands.

Many in Springfield still don't know that in the 2001 redistricting the Democratic north and east parts of town were gerrymandered into Evans' district. The map was drawn by Republican U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Democrat Congressman William Lipinski in what one source calls "a bipartisan incumbent-protection enterprise." There are about 20,000 Sangamon County registered voters in the 17th Congressional District.

Because of his record, I'll have no hesitation about voting for Lane Evans. And because of the makeup of the district and the fact that it looks like a Democratic year in Illinois, he should have no trouble getting re-elected. Evans voted against giving President George W. Bush authorization for war in Iraq, and he's been consistently against the war -- "no flip-flop," he says. He has been a strong supporter of the environment. As a former Marine and the ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, he has been critical of the Bush administration for leaving the Veterans Administration underfunded and ill-prepared for an influx of new vets from Afghanistan and Iraq.

I only wish I'd been put into Evans' district long ago, when it would have been easier to get to know my congressman. He says he's gratified at how sincerely compassionate most people are with regard to his disease. "I see them in McDonald's or someplace, and they say, 'How are you doing?' I say, 'Fine,' then they say, 'How are you really doing?' I tell them I have my ups and downs. But I'm very happy in my work, and I feel strongly about the issues we have been able to raise. This campaign shouldn't be about me. It should be about the 44 million people who don't have health insurance, many of them children."

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