Features » November 6, 2006
Semper Fi: The Way to Win
Lane Evans’ career in Congress teaches progresssives a lasting lesson.
In the depths of the 1982 Reagan recession, when rustbelt manufacturing towns like Rock Island and the surrounding western Illinois farm country convulsed with deep economic pain, a young legal services attorney set off on what seemed like a quixotic quest–campaigning as a Democrat for a congressional seat that, outside one brief hiatus, had been held by Republicans for more than a century.
But Republicans were divided by a scandal involving the incumbent, who was defeated in the primary by a right-wing social conservative. That set the stage for Lane Evans, only 31 years old and even more youthful-looking, to win with a combination of diligent organizing, earnest populism and plain-spoken personal integrity. Republicans were convinced his victory was a fluke, especially when in his first term Evans voted against Reagan more consistently than anyone else in Congress.
“I always said that voting against Reagan was one of the things I’m most proud of,” Evans told In These Times recently. “But my mother once said she didn’t like my few votes that were for Reagan because he was such a terrible president.”
Despite many hard-fought elections over the 24 years since then, Republicans never took Evans out. But the steady progression of Parkinson’s disease over the past decade finally did. In the spring of 2006, he announced that he was retiring from Congress. But the man who seems poised to succeed him is cut from much the same political cloth. Phil Hare, a former garment worker and union leader, worked for Evans’ first campaign and has served as the congressman’s district director ever since, heading up a constituent service program that even Republicans grudgingly admire.
Hare has several advantages as he scrambles to make voters more aware of who he is in a race against a well-known Republican candidate, Andrea Zinga, a former Rock Island TV news anchor who ran against Evans two years ago. President Bush is as unpopular here as elsewhere. And the district has been trending Democratic, even before a bipartisan remap in 2002 gave Democrats a much more secure, if strangely gerrymandered, district.
Most of all, Hare has inherited the goodwill that Evans developed over a career that demonstrates how unstinting progressive politics can succeed in parts of the country written off as irredeemably “red.” Evans succeeded partly by staying in close touch with the residents of his district and partly by being so likeable–the rare politician who supporters, staff and even colleagues in Congress unashamedly talk about loving.
“They literally just love Lane Evans,” says Dino Leone, vice-president of the area’s central labor council, discussing union members’ support for Evans. “They know he has never betrayed them on any issue for working families. It’s hard to say that about other politicians. And the nice thing is we know we’ve got the same commitment from Phil Hare.”
“I think part of his success was personality,” says John Cameron, political director of the Illinois council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “Part of it was smart politics. Lane just came across as a genuinely likeable, sincere, honest person.” But what Cameron calls his “pragmatic populism”–like that of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)–was broad enough to encompass both kitchen-table economics and progressive social views. His constituents could count on Evans for solidarity with labor unions, opposition to NAFTA-style trade agreements, fighting on behalf of veterans, and defending Social Security and other welfare state programs. But he was equally ardent in his crusades against land mines, support for rights of gays, women, and minorities, and resistance to overseas military adventures.
“He had to fight every time to get re-elected,” Cameron recalls, “but he never wavered. He never trimmed. He never said, ‘It would be easier to get re-elected if I went with the Chamber of Commerce,’ ” (or pulled punches on the hot-button cultural issues). John Ayers, who worked with Evans on Sen. Fred Harris’ failed populist presidential bid in 1976 and later served on his staff, recalls, “Lane said, ‘I’m not going to put my finger in the air to see where I’m going. I believe people believe in a believer.’ He developed an almost personal trust with different constituencies. Even if they didn’t agree with him, they saw him as a man of honor.”
But Evans credits his success to the fact that he was able to inspire people to act politically. “The secret to success from a progressive point of view is to bring in people who’ve never been involved before and not cave in to special interests that are more represented than they are in politics,” says Evans, as he reflects back on his career in his modest district office near a shopping mall. “It’s important to bring in all the people who feel left out, to pay attention to individuals and organized groups. We redeem their hopes, and it pays off politically.”
A Vietnam-era Marine veteran, Evans was a champion for veterans. He argued that conservatives celebrate veterans but fail to deliver on programs that help them. Evans crusaded for better veteran health care, including aid for victims of Agent Orange and for those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Veteran programs were doubly important to him because they delivered needed government services to working class families. And his service to vets helped to politically neutralize attacks on his progressive military and foreign policy positions, such as opposition to Reagan’s policies in Central America. He believes that principles and politics ultimately complement each other. “We go after people who are left out and redeem their hopes,” Evans says, “and it pays off politically.”
Evans formed coalitions based on such principles, not simple electoral arithmetic. For example, although African-Americans make up only seven percent of his district, Evans cultivated close relationships with the black community and was an early supporter of the 1983 Chicago mayoral campaign of Harold Washington, who campaigned for him in 1982. Two years ago, after inviting all the Democratic hopefuls for U.S. Senate to travel with him through his district, Evans became one of the first prominent Democrats to endorse Barack Obama. “This guy is authentic,” Evans recalls thinking as he watched Obama campaign.
He also never backed down from taking stands that caused him political grief. For example, despite the moderate to conservative social views of many of his constituents, he supported gun control legislation (such as the Brady Bill), opposed bans on flag-burning and defended the rights of gays in the military. “You’ve got to take these issues on right away, as early as possible,” he says. “You should not try to be too cute, but you can’t be strident either. I could win over conservative blue-collar Democrats because they know I respected their opinions.” Ultimately, he believes, his willingness to stand up for his beliefs paid off. “The reason we won tough elections and carried the ball forward is that we weren’t willing to cower,” he says.
Never a dynamic public speaker, Evans was nevertheless very effective in small-group settings. Although he considered running for Senate and nearly won an unusual challenge to an entrenched conservative Democrat to chair the veterans’ committee, he was never a high-profile national leader. And as much as he forged a strong, loyal Congressional district operation, he was not able to put his populist stamp on the local Democratic Party.
What he lacked in flash he made up for with persistence. It took many years for him to win some of his crusades, such as aid for Agent Orange victims, and he leaves Congress with a long list of goals only partly realized at best–fairer funding for women’s health research, improved federal programs for native Americans, elimination of antipersonnel landmines. “You just have to keep pounding,” he says. “But you wonder if you did enough. It’s like Schindler’s List: If I only had more time, I could have done more.”
The 57-year old Hare seems likely to carry on Evans’ battles, even if he is still adjusting to stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight. “I still look for Lane to come in when I’m doing events,” says Hare. “As people are applauding, I think, ‘Where is he?’•” The lesson he learned from Evans, he says, is to “absolutely be true to yourself on issues. Lane went in with a core set of values and never faltered. I think these jobs [in political office] are about helping everyday people, and I could see legislation both helping and hurting.” So Hare hopes to push for trade agreements “that are fair for both sides,” for legislation that rewards “patriot corporations” that create jobs in the United States, for reform of the Medicare prescription drug plan and for universal, single-payer health insurance. He also thinks Democrats can make the case that they can protect the country from terrorists better than Republicans while at the same time getting troops out of Iraq “as safely and quickly as possible.”
Evans is clearly sad that he cannot continue his work but he is happy that at least his longtime aide and friend will be carrying on the same fight. As I get up to leave his office, Evans smiles, salutes and says crisply, “Semper Fi.” For Evans, it is much more than a Marine Corps salutation. He has succeeded in politics by being “always faithful” to his principles, to his constituents and to himself. It was, and still is, a winning strategy.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.