Lipinski’s exit interview: What’s next for the departing Democratic House member

“In public life, I didn’t fit neatly into the Democratic Party, and you know a large part of that is because of a lot of my belief, shaped by my Catholic faith.”

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Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., delivering his farewell speech on the House floor, Dec. 8, 2020.

Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., delivering his farewell speech on the House floor, Dec. 8, 2020.

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WASHINGTON — Sunday marks the end of a 37-year era when a Lipinski — either Dan or his father Bill — represented Illinois in Congress.

“I didn’t fit neatly into the Democratic Party,” Rep. Dan Lipinski said in an exit interview with the Sun-Times. We discussed his career and what is ahead for him.

When the 117th Congress kicks off at noon, Marie Newman, who beat Lipinski in the March Democratic primary, will represent Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District, which sweeps in some of the western suburbs and a patchwork of Southwest Side precincts in Chicago, the original Lipinski family power base.

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Lipinski was sworn in for his first term on Jan. 4, 2005.

He is known for his work on transportation and science issues, advocating for anti-abortion legislation and his membership in the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group seeking common ground in the highly polarized House. Lipinski was the co-chair of the House Pro-Life caucus.

He has been a strong champion of federal funding for local rail and public transportation projects as well as for O’Hare and Midway, with the Southwest Side airport in his district.

In Lipinski’s farewell address on the House floor on Dec. 8, he deplored how the top leadership of the party controlling the chamber — not committee chairs or members — controls whether legislation gets a vote.

Instead of compromise, “the process runs through the speaker’s office,” Lipinski said, “where the content of the legislation is shaped to get enough votes — just out of the majority — to pass something that pleases various partisans.”

Not a criticism, he added, “of the current speaker or any former speaker. This is a problem of our institution.”

What’s next: Lipinski, 54, who lives in Western Springs, will work for a human rights organization, which he declined to name. He is putting together a book proposal.

After COVID restrictions are lifted, he said he may want to teach again. I asked about lobbying, and he said “possibly.”

Lipinski holds a Ph.D. in political science from Duke University; he had switched from engineering, in which he earned a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern and a master’s from Stanford.

His doctoral research focused on communication strategies used by House members. He was teaching about American government at the University of Tennessee when his father arranged, in 2004, to hand his seat off to his son, using political sleight-of-hand. Rep. Bill Lipinski served in Congress from Jan. 3, 1983 through 2005, when he passed the baton.

Dan Lipinski said he will donate his congressional papers to the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Study Center at the University of Oklahoma.

On being a “Catholic first”: Lipinski said his book will be the story of a Catholic in public office, continuing a conversation he started in a 2019 commencement address at Ave Maria University, a Catholic school in Florida.

“My message to students was, to be a Catholic first. Do not think that you have to choose in this very polarized world, that you have to choose one of these two sides.

“…In public life, I didn’t fit neatly into the Democratic Party, and you know a large part of that is because of a lot of my belief, shaped by my Catholic faith.”

That does not mean, he said, that Catholic and working-class Democrats should “jump into the Republican Party.”

I asked him to explain more on what it means to be a “Catholic first” and he said, “my Catholic faith informs [all] the decisions that I make.

“And I think Catholic social teaching” is “very rich and well thought-out. It emphasizes the dignity of every, every individual.”

Why Lipinski is a Democrat: Through the years, a rap on Lipinski, with his right-of-center record, is that he has more in common with Republicans. As a practical matter, his political viability depended on precincts in the old Chicago Democratic machine wards. The district was tailored for him by House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago.

The politics aside, Lipinski said he remained a Democrat because, in contrast to small-government Republicans, “As a Democrat I think that government has an important role to play in helping people who need help, or unable to help themselves….

“I’m a Democrat because I think there are things that government needs to do that individuals cannot do.”

On President-elect Joe Biden: Biden, who supports abortion rights, will be the second Catholic president of the U.S.

John F. Kennedy was the first.

While they disagree on abortion, Lipinski said Biden “is in many ways” viewed “as a sort of traditional old-style Democrat, which I’m very happy to see.” Lipinski is “hopeful” Biden can help make the party more “centered” on issues “that bring us together as Democrats, especially the working-class issues.”

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