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Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006 02:51 pm

Pioneers' day

Three lawmakers who blazed trails are leaving the General Assembly

Political columnists usually focus on the dark side of politics, but indulge me today while I say goodbye to three of the best legislators I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

All three are hardworking, honest pioneers. Sen. Adeline Geo-Karis, R-Zion, born in Greece, was the first woman in Illinois history to become a member of the Senate leadership. Sen. Miguel del Valle, D-Chicago, born in Puerto Rico, was the first Latino elected to the Illinois Senate and the first Latino to make it into a leadership slot. Sen. George Shadid, D-Peoria, born to immigrant parents from Lebanon, was the first Lebanese-American ever elected to the Senate and was also the first Lebanese-American to make it to a position of leadership in the Senate.

Geo-Karis (“Geo” to her friends) lost her primary last spring, del Valle was appointed Chicago city clerk last week (another Latino first), and Shadid is retiring. I spent more time with Geo than with the other two, particularly when I was first getting started in this business. A lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II, the first woman to practice law in Lake County, first elected to the House in 1972 and to the Senate in 1978, Geo has always fascinated me. Lately I’ve been trying to persuade her to write a book about her life. Her experiences are too important to be allowed to fade into the past.

Geo has a reputation as a bluntly honest person. She has publicly challenged many people over the years in one debate or another, and I’ve gotten my share of challenges — but she has a way about her that made you forget the scoldings and move on.

Last year her fellow Senate Republicans decided that she was in danger of losing her seat to a Democrat, so they backed a primary challenge against her. Geo lost what turned out to be a bitter, negative primary (on her opponent’s part, not hers) and endorsed the Democrat late in the general election. The Democratic candidate won, partly because local voters were so incensed at the way Geo was treated. I don’t usually care who wins legislative races, because I’m supposed to be a neutral observer, but I have to admit that that result put a little smile on my face.

Del Valle was first elected 20 years ago as a fiery reformer over a Chicago-machine hack. He fought hard to create new Latino legislative districts, and that persistence paid off with the election of many Latinos. About half of those Latinos were independent reformers, but the other half were tied to the machine. This led to years of infighting, but they finally figured out that all they were doing was trading seats every other year. One independent would lose his or her seat, but so would a machine legislator.

Del Valle eventually helped broker a compromise that brought the Latinos together, and they have become a force to be reckoned with in Springfield ever since.

A few weeks ago, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley announced that he had chosen del Valle as his running mate next year. This has caused much gnashing of teeth among political columnists and charges that del Valle has sold out. I’ve kidded him relentlessly about this, asking him to imagine what he would’ve said to me if I had told him 20 years ago that a Daley would pick him to run for city clerk. But there’s also the other side: No way would Daley have run with anyone like del Valle 20 years ago. I choose to look on the bright side and trust that del Valle, an independent lion, will retain the courage of his convictions and help move Chicago away from the bad old days.

Of all the retirees, I know George Shadid the least. First elected 14 years ago, Shadid has always been a quiet, productive legislator. He’s the rare politico who doesn’t seek out publicity.

In a word, Shadid is a rock. His word is his bond, making him one of the most dependably honest legislators at the Statehouse.

Shadid, a former Peoria County sheriff, was hugely popular in his district and he never had a tough reelection campaign. That local popularity was on display at his recent going-away party, which attracted 1,100 attendees and raised an eye-popping $300,000 for Easter Seals.

Politicians often get a bad rap, but these three legislators deserve our thanks for long careers bursting with integrity.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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