Office-holders praising each other, fighting the fight, in the trenches — Eisenhower fix-up meeting, Brooks Middle School, 2013

Oct. 29 was the fix-Eisenhower meeting at Brooks. The senator had called it, announced it in the newspaper, had urged attendance with robocalls, ran it.

He set the tone at the start, standing at a podium in front of a big stage in the ample middle-school auditorium, facing a good-sized crowd. “Eleven or twelve years ago,” he a newly elected senator, “we [royal “we”?] were fighting this fight in Oak Park.” Military images predominate; there were more to come.

“It’s been a longstanding issue in our community, going back generations.” (To when Oak Park clout, then Republican, forced a narrowing of the roadway.) His honored guest the Sec Trans and IDOT director had been the “most responsive on this issue” of the four secretaries of transportation he had worked with in his eleven-plus years as senator. (Four in 11 years!)

Sec Trans responded in kind. The senator, she said, had been “in the trenches fighting” for Oak Parkers, who were “lucky to have him.” She also praised Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who had arrived late and been greeted by the senator from the podium and applauded.

Another giant of the trenches, she was applauded again later for a short, empty speech — “God bless you all,” she closed — and yet later when she left early and was bade goodbye by the senator. It was an absolute trifecta for her — applause when she arrived late and when she left early and when she spoke.

It was a touching for-the-love-of-Lightford display, before a compliant, somewhat cowed audience. The event had taken the appearance of a party for Springfield dignitaries. The others had come to watch.

Sec Trans — Secretary of Transportation Ann Schneider, the state’s highest-ranking highway official — was the evening’s featured presence, of course. She had been appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2011 and was to be fired by him nine months later, resigning under a cloud in the wake of hiring improprieties.

The senator also praised, though not as heartily, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) vice president for planning and federal affairs (a sort of procurement officer) Michael McLaughlin, getting his name right as he had somehow failed to do in his Wednesday Journal column announcing the meeting.

Yes, Mrs. McLaughlin, it’s your son Michael. No, Mrs. Connelly, it’s not yours. And no, Senator The senator, as you know quite well, one Irish name is not as good as another.

This CTA man proved the weightier when the dust had settled, in part because of his experience as an aide to a congressman (Lipinski) and a U.S. senator (Durbin), in part by his rapid-fire production of friendly time-fillers, as in referring to Oak Park “snack shops” at the end of the Green Line (we’re here to patronize you villagers, live with it) — but most of all in answering questions without praising anyone effusively or telling us he’s a grandparent or waving his hands when talking or nodding his head in affirmation of what others were saying, which was how the best-ever SecTrans/IDOT director comported herself on this evening.

In other words, he demonstrated a knack for looking as if he knew what he was talking about. No small thing in a public servant.

Nor did he, as did SecTrans, repeatedly turn to staff for answers after volubly restating a question. Indeed, Just once did he call on a helper, a young woman who supplied a data-based answer crisply and to the point.

In short, it was Chicago (CTA) one, Springfield (IDOT) nothing as regards credibility at this event, which was nonetheless a godsend for the senator and to a lesser extent Lightford as a way to get into voters’ line of sight without having to talk about fiscal problems — also no small thing in Illinois in 2013.

A voter asked where the money was coming from for this highway and transit-line renovation. “Good question,” said CTA’s McLaughlin, delivering the news that Washington is “broke.”

“No it isn’t” came from the floor.

Yes it is, said McLaughlin. “The Federal Highway trust fund [whence come relevant moneys] has to borrow from other funds as it is. The gas tax rate is the same as 1993, but forty percent less gas is being bought. We can’t rely on Washington. The money isn’t there.” Bang.

“Big chunks of change” are needed, Schneider added, her sentences running together, hands moving all the time, voice rising at end of sentence, as if hoping we will agree.

Her IDOT bio had her in her early fifties. She called herself a grandmother, apparently of one or more stepddaughters’ children. Her hiring of a stepdaughter was to feature in her inglorious resignation.

Oak Park’s two state representatives, Camille Lilly and LaShawn K. Ford, were missing from this gathering. Lilly had only a few blocks of the Eisenhower “corridor,” as it’s known, in her district. Ford had a mile and a half, all of it in Oak Park — though his 8th district meanders amazingly on a southwest tack through ten neighborhoods and towns, ending on the western edge of LaGrange.

They too could have entered and departed to applause and added their bless-you’s to Sen. Lightford’s, but it wasn’t their turn.

— to be continued —

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