Barbara Flynn Currie: More than 40 years of service to Hyde Park and Kenwood

Staff Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — To say that Barbara Flynn Currie is a typical Hyde Park politician would be both accurate and a touch glib, because no other neighborhood in this mad city has consistently produced politicians at once so distinct — of that silk-stockinged, high-minded, inclusive and headily academic liberalism — and so successful.

Leon Despres never rose above City Council, but few others who gave over their career to full-throated challenging of the Richard J. Daley regime are as remembered or as beloved by the Windy City progressives of today.

Abner Mikva made it to Congress and the federal judiciary.

Paul Douglas, the consummate New Deal economist, rose to the U.S. Senate, as did Carol Moseley Braun, not so remembered for her legislative accomplishments but for her unexpected election, unmatched for 24 years, as a black woman.

Harold Washington and Barack Obama, of course, overcame incalculable odds to reach their highest-of-high offices, leaving utterly altered institutions, parties and bodies politic in their wake.

Barbara Flynn Currie was never mayor, congresswoman, president or alderman. She never served in the General Assembly’s upper chamber. But she, with her trademark bob and toothy smile, served four decades in the State House and 22 years as its Democratic leader, the second-in-command to the intractable Michael J. Madigan, Speaker of the Illinois House.

She leaves behind a state that is an economic and demographic juggernaut; a state demographically and politically out-of-step with its Midwestern neighbors; a state bleeding residents and seized with worry about its financial future, bogged down by debt and pension liabilities and the festering aftermath of its budget impasse.

Barbara Flynn Currie leaves as her Democratic Party assumes power in the state it never had throughout her 40 years in Springfield. And she leaves professing hope for the future and with her ears ringing with the praise of her colleagues.

Born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1940, her family bounced around the Midwest during World War II before settling in Hyde Park when she was seven. She never left, attending St. Thomas the Apostle School, the University of Chicago High School and the U. of C. itself, studying political science and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

She married constitutional scholar and law professor David P. Currie at age 19. They had two children together; she raised them while attending school. In 1965, she became vice president of the Chicago League of Women Voters. After she got her master’s, she taught government at DePaul University and, from 1974 to 1977, she was an assistant study director at the National Opinion Research Center.

She thought about pursuing a doctorate but thought better of it. Her children were teenagers. “I decided in 1978 to trade academic politics for realpolitik,” she said from her cheerful but far-from-regal office in the Illinois State Capitol, within Madigan’s suite, relishing the protracted enunciation.

At the time, Illinois still had multi-member State House districts where the minority party would have at least one of the three representatives in each district. Bob Mann, another Hyde Park liberal who broke from the machine, was retiring. Currie and Braun both ran for his seat.

“I thought it would be exciting to have a voice in political representation for the people in the area, and I’d always been interested in politics and public policy issues,” Currie recalled.
“So this was not a stretch, in the sense that it meshed very well with my interests.”

Barbara Flynn Currie and Speaker Mike Madigan teamed up to help push through legislative reforms in the Illinois Nursing Home Act. (Herald file photo)

On the night of the primary, returns showed that Currie had lost, due to, as the Herald reported, “an obstreperous calculator, unusually slow returns the large number of candidates (10)” in the race. The incumbent Democrat, Lewis A.H. Caldwell, had sought reelection and appeared to have defeated her, and Braun came in first. The Currie family went off to the Bahamas for spring break, where she learned, in fact, that she had beaten him, 8,567 to 8,085.

“Both are excellent choices to represent the community in Springfield, and their fresh viewpoints and independence of thought and action will be a welcome addition to the Democratic side of the house,” the Herald editorialized before the November general election, endorsing both Currie and Braun. Caldwell, who ran as an independent, came in fourth.

Several observers recalled some animosity between Braun and Currie, but Braun, who also served in county government and as Ambassador to New Zealand, said it was only temporary.

“We both moved past that and became colleagues and collaborators over time,” she said. “I was really proud and happy to work with her. She was always on the right side of the issues. I think she composed herself really well for the district.

“It was a difficult district to represent,” Braun said — as is the 25th District today, running along the lakefront from North Kenwood all the way to the Indiana state line, encompassing a racially and economically disparate collection of South Side neighborhoods. “Between the two of us, we both did our best to represent everyone in the district. There was no division, it was collaboration to represent everybody, and that’s what we did.”

They were elected to the State House that November along with Bernard Epton, the moderate Hyde Park Republican who sullied his reputation by using “Before it’s too late” as his slogan in the 1983 mayoral election that Washington, for whom Currie campaigned, won.

An extensive resolution honoring Currie that the House passed on Nov. 29 notes that 1978 was “the first and last time two women from the same political party were elected to simultaneously represent the same” district. It notes her membership or vice-chairing of over a dozen House committees and commissions; she chaired, at certain points, the committees on state government administration, rules and revenue. She was a founding member of the Conference of Women Legislators during her first year in office.

A backbencher until 1993, Currie cultivated a reputation for rock-ribbed liberalness, prioritizing consumer protection, gun control and criminal justice reform, including opposition to the death penalty. Of her time in the House before entering leadership, she noted her work on open access to government, championing Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act that was passed second-to-last among the states, before Mississippi.

“I also became somewhat of an expert on matters of state revenue, and I worked a lot in the human services arena. I was a busy legislator before I became majority leader,” she said. She has, in fact, remained on the revenue committee throughout her leadership; Madigan, the only legislator whose time in office will have preceded and outlasted Currie’s, called her his point person on it.

The Illinois of Currie’s first two decades in office was an Illinois that functioned with a bipartisan government. Govs. James R. Thompson and Jim Edgar were business-minded Republicans without a strong aversion to cooperation, and, though the political process was not always pretty, the work got done.

Barbara Flynn Currie and Ald. Lawrence Bloom (5th) meet with Lee Botts, who was a candidate for the Metropolitan Sanitary District in March of 1986. (Herald file photo)

She entered House Democratic leadership in 1993; after the party won back a majority in 1996, Madigan chose her to become majority leader. It was a surprise to many, as Illinois Democrats typically chose Downstaters to balance a Chicagoan in leadership. It also came as a surprise because of her gender.

Speaking at his office in the Capitol, Madigan wanted to make one thing clear: “Why don’t we lead off with the most important point, which is that when I appointed her a majority leader, I didn’t appoint her because she was a woman,” he said. “I appointed her because, in my judgment, she was the most qualified for the appointment at the time.

“Clearly, she didn’t disappoint me.”

Madigan lauded her ability to introduce legislation — he would often choose her to introduce bills — because she always brought “a real good understanding [and] a real good presentation” to the table.

“She’s very adept at the dialogue and the exchanges that happen on the floor. As you probably know, if someone’s an opponent to the bill, why, they try and embarrass the bill’s sponsor, and she’s very adept at responding to that kind of approach,” he said.

Currie was happy to bring a progressive voice to the leadership. She mentioned her steadfast support for abortion rights and implied that she helped bring Madigan to a pro-choice position.

Neither one said they had any difficulty working together over the years, even though they come from different political backgrounds: she from a Hyde Park, reform-minded independent tradition, and he from the Southwest Side Irish-American political machine.

“We have different views of various and sundry issues, but that did not mean that we did not work well together,” she said.

In fact, Currie says that her legislative priorities have remained largely unchanged throughout her service. “When we abolished [the death penalty], it was a red-letter day,” she said. “We are working on criminal justice reform, an issue that I’ve championed since my first days here, and we’re making some progress.”

Gun control remains the elusive white whale, a fact for which she squarely lays blame on the Supreme Court. Cases liberalizing concealed carry “really took the wind out of our sails, and we have not been able to mount a significant campaign in opposition to the guns that we think are out of control,” she said. The decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago, which incorporated an individual’s right to bear arms and invalidated many state and local gun restrictions, “set a much higher bar.”

Currie takes a nuanced position on the state’s notorious history of public corruption. “I don’t think that corruption is either endemic to our political culture, nor does it run deep and wide in the halls of the Illinois State Capitol,” she said. “I don’t think everyday lawmakers are by-and-large corrupt.”

Barbara Flynn Curry and then state Sen. Barak Obama join Ald. Leslie Hairston in the annual fourth of July parade in 2001. (Herald file photo)

She had no misgivings about Rod Blagojevich at first, calling him “a pretty fine fellow” and “an engaging chap.” She suspects that he had designs on becoming President himself, before Obama’s steady rise from the 2004 Democratic National Convention to the White House sucked oxygen away from Illinois’ other ambitious politicians. She did not relish impeaching him, speaking gravely of “overturning the decision of the voters in a democracy.”

Currie endorsed Obama’s 1996 run for the State Senate but did not anticipate his meteoric political future, which she ascribed, in part, to more than a fair bit of luck. Neither did she foresee the election of Donald Trump.

“I think the problems are that it’s very difficult to convince people who are feeling under the economic gun that politics is working for them,” she said. “I think he was able to play on … a deep vein of resentment and fear and a sense of failure among people, and I think that, unfortunately, he was able to play into those fears and those angers and kind of create in people who maybe hadn’t even thought so, a sense that they were not being properly respected and not being given proper opportunities.”

The Bruce Rauner years have been “miserable,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve had such a hard time in Illinois politics in all the years I’ve served here.

“With Rauner, it’s just been a complete inability to compromise; an inability, even, to talk. He has an agenda, and if his agenda wasn’t our agenda, then it as his way or the highway. And the idea that we would be two years without a state budget was to leave many, many people in the lurch [and] many small social service agencies with their doors shut.”

Even with the world experiencing democratic backsliding and resurgent authoritarianism, Currie remains optimistic, pointing out Democrats’ success in the midterm elections. Asked about Democratic faces to watch, she named a trio of senators with Heartland roots: Elizabeth Warren (originally from Oklahoma), Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

“I would say that most of the people, most of the Democrats, who toppled incumbents in the midterms were not bomb-throwers, were not radical Bernie Sanders-types. They were pretty much middle-of-the-road people focused on healthcare,” she said. “Most of them were not prepared to call themselves socialist. They were Democrats.” Pragmatism and gradual change should be the strategy going forward, she said.

Nevertheless, Currie knows what it is like to not get your way in elections. In the past 40 years, she said Illinois has gotten to be more progressive, with a higher value placed on government accountability — but she also recalled voting with her husband, who died in 2007, years ago.

“I said, ‘It feels so good to vote. I’m a good citizen.’ And he said, ‘But all of the people you voted for are going to lose.’” She laughed. “I think that is not so true today. I think that the people on the ballot are the people with a good deal of respectability, a good deal of heft and policies that are not unlike my own.”

On Hyde Park: “I think the progressive streak, the independent streak is still there. People like to disagree about practically everything, and that’s a mark of an engaged, active, committed community, and I admire it.” She identified affordable housing and public education as both their neighborhood’s and Chicago’s biggest issues, decrying high property taxes necessitated by the state’s inadequate funding of education.

She said Illinois’ biggest issue is, of course, the budget and debt. She endorsed Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker’s plan for a graduated income tax but cautioned that it would take time before money would flow into the state’s treasury.

And for her, the biggest issue facing the nation is polarization. For Americans feeling left behind in the 21st century, “We’ve got to find ways to make sure that employment opportunities are real, and that starts with education, and it continues through training.”

The sense that she is leaving her priorities and concerns in capable hands seems to be why she decided to leave the stage, though she stressed the importance of institutional knowledge in explaining her longevity. “When you have term limits, you don’t end up with lawmakers who have institutional memory,” she said. “You have bureaucrats who have institutional memories and lobbyists, because they’re not term-limited.”

“Besides, you could hardly say that my decision to leave is untimely!” she added. “I’ve served with six governors; I don’t know how many thousand lawmakers, and I’ve served this office during parts of five decades and two centuries. It’s amazing to me that they didn’t give me the back of their hand some time ago!”

Madigan said her exit will create a void. “And we’ll have to fill the void,” he said. “It will take us some time to do that. Every good thing she did — knowledge, presentation, articulation — that won’t be there, and we’ll have to replace it. It will not be easy.

“She should be very proud, and her family should be very proud of her,” he said. “Hyde Park should be very proud of the people that they put into government.”

Currie leaves behind a local political scene in flux. Toni Preckwinkle shares her political sensibilities but not her disposition — though she may yet rise to the Fifth Floor of City Hall and face the herculean task of fixing this splintering and bruised city. Kwame Raoul, finally more than just Obama’s successor in Springfield, has the opportunity to sink or swim as Illinois Attorney General.

For the first time, Hyde Park, diverse but still plurality-white, will be entirely represented in local and state government by African Americans. For the first time in decades, many overwhelmingly black neighborhoods within the 25th District will have a black representative, Curtis Tarver II.

Neither of Hyde Park’s aldermen, Sophia King of Kenwood and Leslie Hairston of South Shore, has broadcast designs on other elected offices (both said they have had monthly meetings with Currie throughout her service). Christian Mitchell of Bronzeville and Tarver of North Kenwood radiate ambition and plans for the State House. Raoul’s successor in the Senate has yet to be named.

Barbara Flynn Currie exits a political life that required diverse bedfellows and liberal doses of compromise. (“Governors come and go; legislative leaders are here to provide stability, right?” said Madigan. “That’s my view.”) She has great expectations in retirement: more time for her hobbies of bird-watching, reading mystery novels, opera, the symphony, theater, spending time with family; more time to travel and take art or music appreciation classes.

A battalion of politicos new and old are now tasked to move Hyde Park’s progressive tradition and the State of Illinois forward without her.