‘Transit clout king’ passes on purpose, if not political practice, to his son

By Katherine Ling | 06/12/2015 07:27 AM EDT

Second in an occasional series

Although he grew up as the son of a Chicago alderman and 11-term congressman, it was the plight of dolphins that sparked Daniel Lipinski’s interest in politics.

"I always say my first political activism was probably in fifth grade with a friend in seventh grade, and we put together a petition to the Japanese government to ask them to stop their fishermen, to stop killing dolphins when fishing for tuna," said Lipinski, a five-term Democratic representative from Illinois’ 3rd District.

"We were going out in front of grocery stores and the Brookfield Zoo asking people to sign the petition," he said.


Still, Dan got a few tips about politics and making an impact on his community growing up as the son of William "Bill" Lipinski, most famous for obtaining the federal funding necessary to build the Orange Line, the rapid transit line that serves his district on the southwest side of Chicago, running from Midway Airport to downtown.

While the elder Lipinski was known for championing infrastructure projects — whereas Dan has also taken up environmental and science issues — Dan Lipinski said his father instilled in him a spirit of public service.

"My father always saw elected office as a way to help people," he said. "That is why he originally got into it. He enjoyed that. That is why he wanted to do it. I look at it in the same way."

Helping their constituents may be the ultimate goal, but the political world of handshake deals, loyalty and earmarks that Bill Lipinski practiced to bring jobs and investments to his district has significantly changed.

"I always sometimes say to my father, ‘I don’t know how you would have operated in Congress today,’" Dan said. Still, the younger Lipinski said he is still also an "unabashed supporter" of earmarks.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee who has served with both generations of Lipinskis, agreed.

"The whole rules have changed, so there’s less opportunity for projects" since Republicans "ill-advisedly" banned earmarks, said DeFazio, a 15-term congressman.

Dan Lipinski and parents
Dan Lipinski (left) with his parents, Rose Marie and Bill Lipinski, on the day Chicago-area Democratic leaders nominated Dan Lipinski to replace his father on the congressional ballot in 2004. | Photo courtesy of AP Images.

"Obviously, Bill was more in the tradition of old-school Chicago, Ill., politics, and he prospered here in an era and had a good working relationship with Speaker [Dennis] Hastert [R-Ill.] where there was a fair amount of earmarking and designation of individual projects," DeFazio said.

"Bill always had a little book, and he certainly would write little notes in it, and it was like, ‘Oh, I am going to owe him if I ask him to help me with this,’" DeFazio recalled.

Although wheeling and dealing is now essentially off the table in the modern-day Congress, Dan Lipinski still managed to write the second-highest number of bipartisan bills last session, and was in the top 30 percent of all representatives for co-sponsoring legislation, according to GovTrack.us.

"It is not the way it used to be, but there is still room for influence, and I still have the ability to have influence on issues," he said.

It is not only the art of politicking that has changed, Dan added, but also how politicians view political impact.

"They look at these big issues, and the way they relate to their constituents and build support is to talk about these big issues about the condition of the country and the need to do this big thing, or that big thing," the current congressman said.

"It is a lot more posturing and talking about things that don’t ever get done," he said. "I focus more on the things that can get done and where I can have an impact. "

‘We want to build things’

Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois, Chicago, a former Chicago alderman and longtime observer of Chicago politics, said Bill Lipinski always was willing to work for reform and put together coalitions during his time on the City Council.

"Bill was never primarily in the limelight," Simpson said. "He wasn’t a splash politician" — although he did famously wear a pumpkin-orange corduroy suit during his time at City Hall, according to a 2011 Crain’s Chicago Business story.

Bill Lipinski’s desire to be effective was evident in his choice to focus on transportation and infrastructure projects, keeping a lower profile on social and foreign policy issues that he would clash with members of his party on.

"I was always considered a conservative Democrat," Bill said in a 2010 interview with the Chicago History Museum. "I knew I was conservative. I knew who I represented, and I knew how I needed to represent them. I felt that being on infrastructure and transportation was a place where you didn’t really need to worry about whether you were a liberal or a Democrat. No liberal, Republican or conservative. It’s ‘We want to build things’; ‘We want get things done’; ‘We want to get things moving.’

"That is why I went on that committee. That is why I stayed on that committee," he said.

During his time, Bill brought billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects to Illinois, and The Chicago Tribune described him as the "transit clout king" in an article about his retirement in 2004. Along with the Orange Line, he also helped to expand and modernize Midway and O’Hare International airports and supported the authorization bill for a freight-rail decongestion plan known as CREATE.

Lipinski did not work on physical infrastructure "to the exclusion of policy" but also concentrated on airline regulation, among other issues, said DeFazio, who worked with Bill on several aviation bills, including an attempt to get rid of private airport screening firms before Sept. 11, 2001.

He "foresaw airline mergers and the movement of aircraft maintenance overseas," DeFazio said. "He showed a lot of insight into where some of these policies were headed."

Joseph Schofer
, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, said Bill Lipinski deeply understood the importance of infrastructure and was able to translate this to other lawmakers.

The elder Lipinski regularly checked in and helped find funding for Northwestern’s Infrastructure Technology Institute, which researched infrastructure monitoring, materials and material science. The institute closed in 2013 due to a lack of funding.

In honor of Bill’s contributions to infrastructure, Northwestern named for him the William O. Lipinski Symposium on Transportation Policy & Strategy, an annual conference that connects decisionmakers with transportation experts to build a consensus on transportation and infrastructure solutions. The 77-year-old former lawmaker still speaks at and plays a significant role in attracting important lawmakers to speak at the symposium, which is taking place later this month, Schofer said.

The U.S. Railroad Retirement Board building in Chicago was renamed in 2011 to honor the elder statesman.

Schofer said infrastructure as a whole has really suffered in this new era of politics. "I am really concerned the Congress seems unable to do anything of substance ahead. Despite all of the signs there is a need, they won’t be able to do anything," he said.

"The world has changed so much that there will never be another negotiator like Bill Lipinski," Schofer said.

Two paths, one goal

Like his father, Dan Lipinski is also a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and he is considered a moderate Democrat; he’s more conservative on social issues like abortion than most of his fellow party members.

It is a longstanding tradition that the representative of Illinois’ 3rd District be a member of the T&I Committee — formerly known as Public Works and Transportation. The district is home to many federal highways, state tollways, Chicago’s Midway Airport, Romeoville’s Lewis University Airport, the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, four commuter rail lines, Amtrak, and six of the country’s seven Class I freight railroads.

"Transportation is important. It sort of fits in with trying to help people out and also helps out the region, and transportation is critical to everybody, every day. We all have to get somewhere," Dan Lipinski said.

"I don’t want to be on a committee that is going to put me at odds with my fellow Democrats. There is no reason to do that. I don’t want to be on the Judiciary Committee. I don’t want to do that. I chose transportation in order to help out the district, really," he said.

Schofer said Dan is making his mark as best he can under the current circumstances.

"It is very clear Dan has a very strong interest and very good technical skills," Schofer said. "Presuming he stays in the position, I expect his impact will grow."

Dan Lipinski took a different path to his present job than his father, who climbed the ranks of the Chicago Park District for 17 years to become the area administrator before legendary Chicago Mayor Richard Daley selected him to be the Democratic ward committeeman of the 23rd Ward. He then was elected to the City Council in 1975 and was elected to Congress seven years later in what was then the 5th District. He was elected to represent the 3rd District in 1992 after his area was absorbed in redistricting.

The son, who will be 49 years old next month, was not a political lifer. Instead, he pursued a bachelor’s of science degree in mechanical engineering, a master’s degree in engineering-economic systems from Northwestern University and a doctorate in political science from Duke University. While he was in school, he worked for various politicians, including former Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) and former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). But Dan turned to academia after finishing his degrees, teaching political science at the University of Notre Dame and then at the University of Tennessee until 2004.

Bill Lipinski, who didn’t finish college, encouraged his son to pursue the engineering degree as an undergraduate instead of political science, Dan said.

"I am not sure if it was the greatest advice or terrible advice," he said. "I remember when I started college I was thinking at that time I probably would go to college, then go to law school and run for elected office."

But he also really enjoyed math and science, was good at it, and saw it as a degree where he could "always get a job." Dan couldn’t decide between that or political science, he recalled. "I looked at it in a very practical way, the way I always look at things," he said.

Bill Lipinski told his son to go for engineering, as political science classes wouldn’t teach him anything that would help him run for office.

‘The personal touch’

Growing up the son of a politician did teach Dan what to expect when it came to a politician’s lifestyle and the commitment it took to run a campaign.

The first concrete memory Lipinski has of campaigning was going door to door with his mother during his father’s bid to be a member of the Chicago City Council in 1975.

"It wasn’t something that I was really excited about doing. I probably would rather have been doing other things," like playing Little League baseball, Lipinski conceded. "In a way, I thought it was interesting what he was doing; on the other hand, I didn’t want to be the one campaigning" and was not overly fond of the attention.

"I understood at a young age that the spotlight was on me. Fortunately, I wasn’t getting into any trouble. I knew if I did anything, people would know who I was," Lipinski said.

But he said observing his father during the campaign and other political events taught him the importance of meeting people face to face.

"Showing up. Being there. Showing your interest, but probably the most important thing was how important the personal touch is," Lipinski said.

"It helped me once I personally got involved and ran for Congress. I had a sense of what my personal life would be like," he said — although he did note that being an alderman in a sense came with more responsibility because the "fewer number you represent the more people are looking for you to personally to solve every problem."

Bill Lipinski paved the way for his son to step into politics by abruptly announcing his retirement in 2004, after winning the primary election and endorsing him for his old congressional seat. This meant that local Democratic leaders, rather than real voters, would choose the substitute party nominee for the general election — a move that angered many in Chicago’s political circles. But the criticism has simmered down through the years, and Dan Lipinski has been re-elected four more times.

"I thought about it and thought about where I was and looked to the future and thought, ‘You know, I think that is something I would like to do’," Dan said, describing how he responded after his father asked him if he was interested in the seat. Dan Lipinski surmises that his father was expecting his son to decline.

"I always had the interest," Dan said. "And I thought, well, maybe I will go and do this. Because I still felt that I could have an impact.

"I have had a number of people who have come up to me and said, ‘You know, when you first got elected, I wasn’t very happy with that, but, you know, I have watched what you do, and I like what you are doing, and I support you.’ That has always been something, that’s been important to me," he said.

Bill Lipinski has tried to stay out of politics since his son’s election, although he has done some lobbying on behalf of the Chicago Transportation Authority, Metra and the Association of American Railroads.

"He didn’t want to be standing there and overshadow me in any way," Dan said. "But I think another part of that is he was just finished with doing that."

Next generation

Dan Lipinski managed to win $100 million in federal funding for the CREATE rail modernization program, a public-private partnership designed to ease road and rail congestion in northeastern Illinois, in his first year in office in 2005 and continues to be a strong advocate for the program as only about a quarter of the projects have been finished.

During his tenure, he has also helped secure millions of dollars in grants for Metra’s SouthWest Service and Heritage Corridor lines and Midway, as well as tried to negotiate the renewal of a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization bill — something his father was very much a part of during his time, as well.

Dan Lipinski’s schooling and interests explain why he has become a strong supporter of science research and education in Congress.

"The science committee really interested me," Dan said, even though there is a looser connection in the district compared with transportation, with only part of the Argonne National Laboratory located there. "It is something really important when looking at what is the American economy going to look like. Technology and innovation are really critical."

He has been a key supporter of the science research and education authorization bill known as COMPETES, as the top Democrat of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology.

The legislation’s passage in 2007 and reauthorization of the bill in 2010 on a bipartisan basis was one of the "proudest moments" in his legislative career, he said in a speech on the floor during passage of the latest reauthorization bill.

The latest COMPETES act, H.R. 880, passed along party lines and with much criticism from Democrats, including Lipinski, for its funding levels and "political meddling" with the National Science Foundation grants system (E&E Daily, May 21).

"Dan is a serious policy guy," DeFazio said of his colleague. "I mean, he is a professor — he gets pretty far into the weeds in terms of policy work, and he doesn’t have the opportunities for individually designating projects … but he is a very thoughtful legislator."

Lipinski is also much more active on environmental issues than his father — including voting against opening new federal lands to drilling, supporting a 25 percent national renewable energy standard and is against efforts to bar U.S. EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Dan has earned a 89 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters, as compared to a 60 percent rating for his father. Bill Lipinski voted against raising corporate auto fuel efficiency standards and incentives for alternative fuels and supported reducing liability for hazardous waste cleanup, according to OnTheIssues.org.

Dan Lipinski said transportation, science and the rest of his work really comes down to understanding and building trust with his constituents.

"I look at it and see I need to really deliver something for my constituents. I need to know I am making their lives better in some way," he said. "Not that everything I do is successful … but there are things that I have a chance to be successful and be helpful on.

"I think that is a different way of looking at being a member of Congress different than others have. It goes back, that is the way my father looked at things," Lipinski said. "Probably the biggest thing I got from my father was a view of the purpose of being an elected official."