While the government shutdown might be the most discussed topic this week in Monmouth College’s “American Politics” class, the major news last week was a guest lecture by state senator and assistant majority leader John Sullivan (D-Rushville).
Sullivan shared his experiences in politics with the class, which included several Chicago residents. He noted there are major differences between serving his relatively rural district and serving the much more densely populated districts in Chicago. In fact, he told the students, his district has an area of 6,000 square miles, while the smallest metropolitan district comprises just six square miles.
“What a diverse group of people there are in this state, especially when it comes to passing legislation,” he observed. “The legislators from Chicago don’t always grasp our agriculture needs. I, in turn, don’t always grasp their needs.”
Sullivan said he was very nervous about the first bill he sponsored shortly after winning a Senate seat in 2002. He was well aware of the tradition of giving first-time bill presenters an extra hard time on the Senate floor, so he was deep in preparation for that intense questioning when he was approached by a senator from Chicago.
“He asked me why I was so nervous, and I explained to him that this was my first bill,” said Sullivan. “He asked, “What does it do?’ and I told him that it lowers and extends the tax credit for ethanol. He said, “What’s ethanol?’
“I said to myself, “Oh, shoot!’ That little conversation changed my whole presentation.”
Sullivan shared another story about legislation that both rural and urban senators could understand.
“The most rewarding part of the job for me is being able to help someone with a problem or an issue. I had a constituent, who had served in the National Guard, come up to me and tell me about a law related to covering the cost of his education. Since he had served domestically and not in an active combat situation, the deadline for him to receive financial assistance had passed.”
After researching the law, Sullivan discovered that it had been written several decades ago and that military personnel agreed it needed to be changed. He got the legislation passed, and he was proud that the constituent who first told him about the problem was able to join him as the vote was read on the Senate floor.
Sullivan encouraged Monmouth students to visit him, too, and extended an invitation for them to come to Springfield when the Senate is in session from January to May and to “follow me around for a day.”
In response to a question about advice for future politicians, he advised them, “My suggestion to you, if you have any desire to get into politics, is to find someone you agree with and get involved with their campaign.”
It was that involvement, when he was not yet a teenager, which stoked his own passion for politics. Along with other family members, he went door-to-door for a family friend who was running for county treasurer near his hometown.
“I’ve never forgotten that experience, and how impressed people were that we were out there doing that, and I don’t think I ever will forget it,” he said.
Prior to serving in politics, Sullivan sold insurance, was an ag lender and worked in his family’s auction business.
“By far, this has been the most rewarding job I’ve ever done,” he said. “But it has also been the hardest and the most stressful. Every time you vote, some people are going to absolutely love it, and some will absolutely hate it. The advice I was given was ‘Always vote your district.’ Sometimes that’s pretty fuzzy. It’s not always black-and-white.”
Sullivan said his future in politics is also not black-and-white, as he is uncertain how long he’ll stay involved, with options ranging from running for a statewide office to moving on to a new profession.