Trip to Springfield, Ill.

Walking around Springfield, Illinois,  alone is not what you typically do on Sunday nights. Neither do I, but it just happened that that was the day I arrived in the State capital.

Amid the darkness and solitude of the deserted city, I found the lit Capitol to be beautiful and reassuring.

On Monday I was already out by 9 a.m. and heading back to the Capitol. On my way there, I stopped by the Illinois Republican Party headquarters and got to speak with Political Director Curt Conrad.

The small office just a couple of blocks from the Capitol was empty and Conrad took some time to talk about where the Party was headed. The main focus, he said, was to seize the political advantage the Blagojevich scandal had created and get a big win in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

After that I went to the Capitol and was lucky enough to sit in at the first ever press conference of the Coalition for Honest and New Government Ethics (CHANGE) Illinois, “a coalition aligned to bring government integrity in Illinois.”

I got to speak with many advocates such as Cyndi Canary and Peter Bensinger (co-chair of CHANGE Illinois), and AARP Illinois Senior State Director Robert Gallo. They would all testify that day at 3 p.m. in front of the Joint Committee on Government Reform, and I didn’t want to miss taking notes there.

But before the committee hearing I had an appointment with Sun-Times’s Bureau Chief David McKinney. He welcomed me into his office and we chatted a little about State politics and he told me how things have changed for journalists around there. The Tribune, he said, used to have three reporters, and now only one was left.

The Joint Committee hearing started on time but went on forever. Lots of testimonies, many of whom I had already heard at the morning press conference. Both House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) were presiding the committee meeting. The general feeling I got from the questions senators and representatives asked to the various advocacy groups that showed up to present their research and data on campaign funding? A cap on campaign contributions will not be placed, maintaining Illinois’s position as one of five states which don’t impose contribution limits. (New Mexico is currently working on legislation to place a cap)

After a salad-ravioli-beer dinner at Saputo’s (favorite inside joke: “You having dinner with Madigan?”) I headed to the motel to charge up for the next day.

On Tuesday morning I attended some more of the Joint Committee on Government Reform and finally at noon both Senate and House sessions started.

What I saw in front of me from the visitor’s balcony sort of shocked me. No one bothering to even listen to what the speaker was saying, people chatting about who knows what or – even worse – browsing the internet on their laptops.

So I headed down to 3rd floor, where a bunch of people were standing outside the doors. Little cards with specific requests were written and given to the ushers, who would go on the floor in search of the senator or representative. A few came out, and I was fortunate enough to have followed a group of parents and students from Namaste Charter school that came all the way from Chicago on two buses to ask their legislators to increase funding for the school’s expansion projects.

Every senator that would come out looked like he or she was in a hurry, so I had to throw in quick questions and grab whatever quotes I could among the chaos. I even got to talk to a lobbyist about my age whose main interest was having speed-rail legislation passed.

After that, I walked to the nearest cafè with free wireless, got out my laptop and started typing the story due by 4 p.m.

On my way back to Chicago that evening, I felt exhausted but also very happy that I had gotten a lot accomplished. I looked out the window and watched the sun set behind the never-ending plains.

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