Remembering Lane Evans: A Hero for Progressives Across the Nation.
(Picture: 2001 Lerner-Egan Award for Distinguished Service Honoree Representative Lane Evans seated with 2001 keynote speaker Senator Paul Wellstone and Representative Jan Schakowsky at our 2001 Annual Dinner)
Former Congressman Lane Evans died this week after a two-decade struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Lane was in this 13th term as the United State Representative from western Illinois’ 17th district when he resigned in 2007, a beloved figure in Illinois politics and a hero for progressives across the nation.
For us in Citizen Action, Lane was even more than that: a personal friend to many, a staunch supporter of our coalition and its mission, and an inspiration for a generation of political activists, several of whom followed his footsteps into elected office and even to the halls of Congress. He embodied a progressive populism that fought steadfastly for working families while embracing the full range of civil and human rights with a commitment to both international justice and peace, and a sustainable global environment For which he was elected over and over again in the heartland of our state, a district of blue-collar towns and rural communities.
In 1981, shortly after the Citizen Action Non-partisan Political Action Committee (our predecessor organization’s electoral arm) was formed, a young Vietnam War-era veteran and recent legal services attorney sought its support for a long-shot Congressional bid. The Quad Cities-based district had not elected a Democrat since the Civil War, and no one else was much interested. However Lane and his close advisors like union activist Phil Hare thought the time had come: Ronald Reagan’s policies were wreaking havoc on local industries and people were suffering. Then a DC-scandal tainted the incumbent Republican, who lost a bid to a far right primary challenger, setting up a general election battle between Lane and his Reaganite opponent. CANPAC stepped in, sending staff, helping Lane raise money and gather institutional support as well as knock on doors across the district. That November, history was made when Lane, along with another downstate Democratic newcomer named Dick Durbin, were elected to the U.S, House.
But that was just the beginning of the history Lane would help make. The next spring, he came to Chicago to support Harold Washington, his Congressional colleague for mayor of Chicago. And he would play a prominent role in helping elect Paul Simon as U.S. Senator the next year, as he would a host of other progressives seeking public office in the coming years, including his future colleague Cong, Jan Schakowsky. Two decades later, in 2004, Lane was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of Barack Obama in his then long-shot bid for the U. S. Senate seat.
Lane’s success, and his example, drove both the local and national right-wing crazy: election after election they put him on the target list, recruit one losing challenger after another, and wasted millions of dollars trying to defeat him. Yet the voters in western Illinois kept sending him back from a district that was only marginally Democratic in a good year, and never a liberal bastion. They did so because Lane was the real deal: he stood up straight, said what he believed, followed through on it, and he didn’t buckle when it was easy or convenient.
They also did it because Lane took care of business in Congress, fighting for the needs of his district, providing the kind of constituent services the residents needed, staunchly battling to protect Social Security, Medicare AND Medicaid, championing the needs of veterans, and always, always supporting worker rights and organized labor.
And they did it, because many, if not most, knew him personally. In some ways he was a poor politician: he was quiet and humble, not given to rousing speeches or grand oratory, but straight forward and genuine. His integrity, his compassion, and his loyalty were his true trademarks, traits that reassured voters and led them to keep returning Lane to Congress even when his disease began to impair his personal ability to get out and campaign. And the trust he earned would help elect his long-time aide Phil Hare to his seat when he could no longer serve.
Throughout his public career, Lane was a firm supporter of Citizen Action’s progressive coalition, one of our “go to” guys in Washington, champion of many our issues and sponsoring groundbreaking legislation, like the fight for universal health care coverage. He served for many years on our Policy Council and was a frequent keynote speaker for Citizen Action’s conferences and gatherings, including the 2001 Annual Dinner where he graciously received our annual Distinguished Service Award, newly renamed for the late Monsignor “Jack” Egan.
For the last several years, as his Parkinson’s had greatly advanced, Lane lived and was cared for at the Hope Creek Center, the publicly-owned and unionized long-term care facility in Rock Island County. This fall, the county board sought voter approval to increase taxpayer funding for the facility, and Lane lent his support to the fight, endorsing the referendum and allowing his name and his words to be used in campaign communications. He began his public career serving the poor and working families, and he did so to the end of his days.
May he rest in peace.
John D. Cameron
November 6, 2014