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Thursday, June 16, 2005 09:01 pm

Sorry end

Rep. John Fritchey’s session was going extraordinarily well — until he smacked into the last 10 days.

The Chicago Democrat was the prime mover behind the unprecedented compromise between anti-abortion and pro-choice groups earlier this session. The two sides had never worked together before Fritchey forced them to the table. It all started when House Speaker Michael Madigan guaranteed the anti-abortion groups that they would have a floor vote on the “Born Alive Infant Protection Act,” a version of which had passed Congress with support from U.S. Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

Nearly half of the Illinois House signed on as co-sponsors, and a floor vote was imminent. Unlike the federal legislation, however, the state bill would have triggered several Illinois criminal laws, and Fritchey tried desperately for days to stop the bill, then finally brokered the historic compromise in his committee.

Fritchey also played a strong behind-the-scenes role in the passage of Rep. David Miller’s groundbreaking payday-loan-reform legislation. Although Miller, D-Calumet City, deserves much of the credit, the bill might not have passed without Fritchey’s assistance.

In mid-May, Fritchey and Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, teamed up in Fritchey’s Judiciary Committee to kill off an attempt by the religious right to water down the new state protections for gays and lesbians. The conservative’s proposal was also supported by Madigan, who replaced opponents on the committee.

Fritchey and Lang both argued that the proposed amendment, sponsored by Republican David Reis, was too broadly written. They hammered away with their argument so persuasively that two conservative Democrats, Reps. Kevin McCarthy, D-Orland Park, and Jim Brosnahan, D-Evergreen Park, sided with Fritchey and against the Catholic Church’s lobbying arm. The bill never resurfaced.

As I said, Fritchey was having a pretty good session: a major compromise, a huge victory, and the sweet defeat of a hostile bill all in the matter of a few months.

But then the troubles began. Like many liberals, Fritchey was crestfallen to learn that Madigan had decided to push for medical-malpractice reform. Fritchey was furious that Madigan would turn his back on trial lawyers, who are among the Democrats’ best friends. Even greater, however, was his dismay that the Democrats would abandon the victims of medical malpractice.

“This bill is a misguided effort to respond to changing political winds, and it’s the future victims in Illinois that will be left twisting in those winds,” Fritchey said during debate.

But the final straw came when Fritchey learned that Madigan, the governor, and Senate President Emil Jones had cut a deal to essentially skip $2.3 billion in state pension payments. Fritchey was truly horrified by the proposal’s fiscal implications and believed that it was absolutely the wrong thing for Democrats to stand for.

Fritchey vowed to make a stand and, when Madigan came calling, said no way. Madigan asked what Fritchey wanted, but Fritchey said that he wouldn’t trade for anything.

That’s when the real trouble began. Sen. James DeLeo, D-Chicago, learned about Fritchey’s position on the pension bill and commenced applying pressure. The two longtime allies argued all day. Vicious threats were made, nasty counterthreats offered, but, when all was said and done, Fritchey voted for the bill.

Fritchey was as depressed after that vote as anyone remembers seeing him. The brutal reality of Chicago politics finally hit home as it never had before. Friends say he seriously talked of resigning. Others, less sympathetic, shrugged and said that he should learn to pick his fights more carefully.

A few days later, Fritchey did something that I’ve never seen a politician do — he publicly apologized. “I wish I hadn’t voted for it,” Fritchey told Alan Krashesky, host of NewsViews, which airs on Chicago’s WLS (Channel 7).

Fritchey did admit that the Democrats didn’t have many other alternatives, but at least he started closing the bitter wounds that opened up late in the session. This could very well be a life-changing event. We’ll see what happens next spring.

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