Since he was elected to Congress in 2004, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) has been trying to wrangle a seat on the House Transportation Committee.
After a two-year internal campaign, this week he was tapped for the panel. Lipinski told me he is most interested in keeping federal funding flowing for the mega-project called CREATE to improve the region's railroad infrastructure. He also wants to watchdog Midway Airport at a time the city is considering taking it private.
In 2004, Lipinski's father, former Rep. Bill Lipinski, fixed the politics so his son, then an assistant professor in political science at the University of Tennessee, could move to the district and inherit a seat.
The freshman lawmaker was interested in the transportation slot from the start. The senior Lipinski, who spent his congressional career on the panel -- officially called the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee -- found that his clout and even his close friendships with the ranking Democrat on the committee -- Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) -- and Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), another panel veteran, could not win his son a spot.
That's because the most coveted committee assignments -- and transportation is one of them -- are hoarded by the Democratic leadership. In a system Republicans also use, committee seats are given to members either as a reward for fund-raising or because they are vulnerable and need the perch to bolster their resumes and/or give them better fund-raising opportunities.
Lipinski's seat was seen by Democratic leaders as safe. Most of the Third District Lipinski represents is in the southwest suburbs, anchored by the heavily Democratic 13th and 23rd wards in the city -- machine-like operations run in the 13th by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), who is the state Democratic party chairman, and, back in 2004, by the senior Lipinski.
Instead, Lipinski was sent to what for him, compared with transportation, were legislative backwaters, committees on science and small business. In the meantime, he started taking on transportation issues because "getting on the committee, part of that is to show I am really interested.'' But Lipinski, who taught how Congress works while an academic, decided to deal with political reality, not theory, which means he had to start raising some money.
As important as it was for him to pitch House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker designate, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who will be majority leader in the new Congress, Lipinski had to get with the program. Lipinski told me he knew "it is also important to show I am a team player. That is part of that. I am a Democrat, and I am going to be supportive of the party." That is "part of building up the relationship."
At one point Lipinski, who likes to bike, took what he said was a 30-mile ride in Maryland with Oberstar. In September, he hosted a fund-raiser for Oberstar at Chicago's Union League Club. "My father certainly helped on that," Lipinski said.
He also had been talking to Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) about the appointment. Lipinski had to pay his dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which Emanuel chairs. Lipinski said he gave more than $50,000 to the committee; records I checked showed a few thousand less. "That's part of showing I am a team player."
The Nov. 7 election gave Democrats the House and vaulted Emanuel to leadership. Emanuel gave a green light to Pelosi about Lipinski. That was generous, because Lipinski's dues invoice was for $100,000, and Lipinski did not donate to Emanuel's highest priority candidates.
"I did what I could," Lipinski said.
Lipinski also had the support of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who sits on the powerful Steering and Policy Committee, whose jobs include committee placement for Democratic members. Democrats, because they are now in the majority, have more committee seats to give out, and Lipinski "made a very strong case,'' Schakowsky said.
Lipinski, while under pressure to donate to the Dem committee, sent a $12,500 check from his campaign fund to Madigan's state Democratic Party. Bill Lipinski is registered as a state lobbyist, with United Airlines one of his clients. He also is affiliated with Dykema Gossett, a law firm with a federal lobbying and government affairs practice, which hired him in part because of his transportation connections.
Because Bill Lipinski is known as an operator, there is a potential for conflict. "Certainly it is something we have discussed," Dan Lipinski told me. "He has agreed he does not lobby me for anyone he works for."