A Rare Pair: July/August 2012 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
Two Illinois senators set partisanship aside and formed a friendship across the aisle.
By Carol Knowles
They finish each other’s sentences and laugh hysterically at each other’s jokes. They may sound like an old married couple, but they’re not. Illinois Senators Pamela Althoff (R) and Toi Hutchinson (D) are unlikely friends who share a deep and abiding bond.
They are different in age, party affiliation, race and geography. Althoff, a Republican, and Hutchinson, a Democrat, are more like sisters than partisan foes. Althoff, 58, hails from McHenry, a small, but rapidly growing town near the border with Wisconsin. Hutchinson, 38, lives in Olympia Fields, near the southern edge of Chicago and the state’s population center.
In a crowded, noisy hallway just outside the Senate chamber, filled with lawmakers, staff members, lobbyists and a parade of tourists, the pair took some time out of their hectic day to talk about the secret to their rapport.
They both struggle to pinpoint when and how they became friends—they just know they are. It is a magical connection that keeps them both grounded and sane in what can be a rough-and-tumble world of Illinois politics.
“When I came in, I was all by myself. There was no class [elected at the same time]. There was no one I belonged to,” Althoff recalls. “I recognized immediately when Toi came in that she wouldn’t have that structure either, and there was an immediate connection.”
The pair bonded further at the 2009 NCSL Legislative Summit in Philadelphia. The conference gave both women a chance to get to know one another outside the office, and they’ve attended many NCSL events since.
“We travel together. We go to conferences together,” says Hutchinson, who chairs the Senate’s Revenue Committee. “Pam helped me become acclimated to NCSL, and now I sit on the NCSL Budget and Revenue Committee so I can enhance my work here in the Capitol.”
Althoff, a self-described collaborator who likes to network and bring people together, is on the Senate Republican leadership team, serving as party whip. She’s active in NCSL, sitting on a number of committees, including its Executive Committee.
The more they got to know one another, the more they realized just how much they have in common. They believe their differences are not nearly as important as what brings them together.
Both women were raised Roman Catholic in the working class suburbs south of Chicago. Both are well-educated, and each served as a local government official before advancing to the Senate.
Althoff, who has a master’s degree in education, began her career as a special education teacher. She was mayor of McHenry in 2003 when she was tapped to replace a popular veteran lawmaker who resigned the seat after being diagnosed with cancer. Elected to the Senate in 2004 and re-elected in 2008, she also served as McHenry’s city clerk, and had been a successful businesswoman.
Hutchinson, former chief of staff to Senator Debbie Halvorson, was appointed to the Senate in 2009, filling the vacancy created when her former boss was elected to Congress. She won election to the Senate in 2010. A mother of three, she served two terms as Olympia Fields village clerk and has extensive community organizing experience. She is in her second year of law school at Northern Illinois University, attending part time.
“Good for the Legislative Process”
Their friendship does not go unnoticed. It’s a welcome change from the partisan rancor that can permeate the atmosphere beneath the Capitol dome.
“Their relationship speaks to the importance of personality in the legislature,” says Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R). “They both are open, friendly and willing to learn from each other. It makes it easy for a relationship to develop.”
Radogno, a senator since 1997, represents a district that abuts Hutchinson’s. She is the first female caucus leader in the Illinois General Assembly, and receives high marks for the collaborative way she works with her members and with those in the Democratic caucus.
“It is very good for the legislative process when people build relationships and are willing to work together to find common ground and practical solutions,” she says.
Althoff befriended and mentored Hutchinson in part because of the isolation she felt as a new lawmaker.
“I am very cognizant of the fact that I struggled the first nine months I was down here. I had nobody to explain to me how to behave, what to do,” Althoff recalled. “In fact, the advice I got was ‘shut up and keep your head down.’ That’s not what you want to do when you first get here. So, I’ve made an effort to try to mentor or at least be available to people who wish to have some kind of advice or have a friend to talk to.”
Hutchinson said learning the ways of the Senate, as well as taking the time to get to know and understand other legislators, have been critical to her own development as a lawmaker.
“There are so many benefits to talking to people who don’t look like you, don’t think like you, don’t live where you live,” she says.
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D) has spent more than three decades in the legislature and agrees getting to know and understand colleagues is an important part of the legislative process.
“One of the great things about serving in the General Assembly is the opportunity to get to know and, in many cases, befriend members from divergent regions, diverse backgrounds and, yes, even different parties,” Cullerton says.
Friendship and Independence
Hutchinson considers herself doubly blessed because she has a strong mentor from her own party in Senator Kimberly Lightford, an assistant majority leader under Cullerton. “I had two really strong, articulate, intelligent, opinionated women who really made sure I learned the ropes,” Hutchinson says.
Neither Hutchinson nor Althoff believes their friendship gets in the way of party politics or in representing their individual districts.
“We both have a sense of independence in this structure. We both work our districts, and we work hard in our districts,” Hutchinson says. “We both have a fierce independent streak so we can talk about things.”
In fact, when Hutchinson was seeking election to a full term in the Senate, she sought counsel from Althoff, who provided encouragement, commiserated on work/life balance issues, and told her to be true to herself.
“As long as you are who you are and you never betray yourself, your constituents will always follow you,” Althoff advised.
The two have cosponsored legislation, often on issues related to local governments, where their government service careers began. They certainly don’t agree on everything. When they disagree, however, they do so with dignity and respect. They take the time to listen and to understand each other’s position, along with the positions of their Senate colleagues.
“There was a bill [sponsored by Hutchinson] that I stood up on the floor and said, ‘I love the sponsor so much. In fact, I hate the bill as much as I love the sponsor,’ ” Althoff says.
Relationships, they agree, are key to tamping down the rancor that can bleed from campaigns into governing.
“When you know personal things about a colleague, it is much harder to demonize that person when you don’t agree with a stand,” Hutchinson says. “I can take a principled stance, but I can also respect the fact that this is a representative democracy. There are 58 other voices in that room, not just mine, and I need to be able to allow for dissension and debate.”
Partisanship in its Place
Partisan rancor is not new to the Prairie State. Even Abraham Lincoln, who served in the Illinois General Assembly, suffered mudslinging attacks and the type of character assassination that can make today’s political wrangling appear tame. In the heat of debate, lawmakers have even been known to come to blows.
“Illinois historically has been a very partisan, bare-knuckle brawl between parties and between regions,” says Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
But those partisan differences, he says, didn’t carry over into personal relationships as much as they do now. He sees less of a commitment to getting things done than in the past.
Wheeler, a former long-time Chicago Sun-Times political reporter, says the evolution of technology and new political strategy techniques have helped foster the sometimes intense lack of civility in politics and government. A small miscue, captured on video, can quickly go viral.
“Twenty or 30 years ago you could go into any bar anywhere and there would be some guy sitting at the end of the bar ranting and raving and spewing goofiness,” he said. “Now, with Facebook, Twitter,
YouTube and the Internet, all those guys sitting at the end of the bar can be in touch with each other and have a disproportionate impact on politics.”
Althoff and Hutchinson are doing their part to keep the discourse civil, and they hope their harmonious relationship will encourage others to follow their lead. The pair hosted a dinner in the Senate for the 16 women who make up 27 percent of the 59-member body.
“It is a unique position to be in, in this Capitol. We are excited and humbled to be here every day, but you have to have somebody else to talk to about this,” Hutchinson says.
“We feed off each other’s energy,” Althoff adds. “You have to have hope.”
Carol Knowles is a writer in Springfield, Ill., and a former Illinois State House reporter.