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Costello looks back, forward as he retires from Congress

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2012 - WASHINGTON – When U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello looks back, he measures his quarter-century career in Congress in terms of rivers spanned, concrete poured, light-rail lines extended and a military base expanded.

“I’ve always approached things regionally, as opposed to only what’s good for Illinois,” said Costello, D-Belleville. “Because I’ve always felt that what’s good for my district is good for St. Louis, and vice versa. So I take a bipartisan, regional approach to issues.”

In an interview, Costello – who retires on Jan. 2 after more that 24 years in Congress, the longest tenure among the St. Louis area's representatives on Capitol Hill – cited a list of important regional projects for which he helped gain federal support.

Those include the new Mississippi River bridge now being built in St. Louis, the growth of the region’s Metro Link light-rail line and the preservation and expansion of Scott Air Force Base, his district's biggest employer.

Despite those regional achievements and his success – as chairman of an aviation subcommittee – shepherding major pilot-safety legislation through the House, Costello is frustrated by what he views as the increasing polarization and dysfunction in Congress.

“In the last few years, it has gotten worse than I ever thought I would see it. People are polarized, and it’s very unfortunate,” Costello told the Beacon. “I’m not sure what you do, other than ask the American people to take a hard look at what’s going on in Congress today. People are frustrated that nothing is getting done.”

Even though he has frustrations with the House, Costello says his main reasons for not running for re-election this year were mostly personal. “I wanted to leave Congress when I was in good health and when I was young enough to do some other things,” said Costello, who says he is feeling fine at age 63.

While he has not yet finalized his post-Congress plans, Costello said he wants to teach college courses in the St. Louis region and do some consulting, probably on transportation. He’ll spend most of his time in Belleville, where he has lived since his father moved the family there from East St. Louis in 1966.

He and his wife, Georgia, “have 8 grandchildren and a 9th on the way, and they are all in the Belleville area,” said Costello. “So I want to spend more time at home and less time in Washington.”

He added: “What I see myself doing is teaching, lecturing on a limited basis, and also doing some consulting – working on projects that I feel passionate about, or where I think I can be helpful.”

Work horse, not a show horse

One of Costello's closest friends in Congress is a Republican and a fellow Metro East resident, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.

“Jerry is a work horse, not a show horse” in the House, said Shimkus. “He’s the consummate representative, focused on his district, focused on the policy work here. He’s open, accessible and really bipartisan."

In an interview, Shimkus added: "I challenge you to find anyone on Capitol Hill, from either party, who would have a negative thing to say about Jerry.”

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, recalled that when he first arrived as a House member in 2001, Costello “was here to greet me and guide me along the right path” and eventually became “a trusted friend and mentor.”

Describing Costello as “a tireless advocate for southern Illinois and the Metro East," Clay said the Belleville congressman “has been a champion for rebuilding and enhancing our transportation infrastructure. The magnificent new Mississippi River bridge that is currently under construction will be a powerful symbol of his legacy of leadership.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, who served with him in the House from 1988-96 before moving to the Senate, calls Costello “pragmatic and bipartisan.” The senator says that’s appropriate for the congressional district, whose voters “don’t care much about political labels, they care about results.”

Pointing out that Costello “has been involved in every major transportation project in the St. Louis-Metro East region for the last 30 years,” Durbin added:

“No one in Congress has a better understanding of or a stronger commitment to improving America’s transportation infrastructure.”

Roots in East St. Louis, Belleville

Both Costello and Durbin were Catholic kids who grew up in different parishes in East St. Louis. Both attended Assumption High School, although they didn’t know each other well then, and Durbin graduated a few years earlier.

After Costello’s father was elected St. Clair Country sheriff in 1966, the family moved – as required by law – into an apartment next to the old St. Clair County jail in Belleville. Costello had met his wife, Georgia, in 7th grade and they married right after high school graduation in 1968. He put himself through college by working as a court bailiff, then as a sheriff’s deputy.

In 1980 he was elected St. Clair County Board chairman, a post he held until 1988. During part of that time, Costello also chaired the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council – the planning group for the St. Louis region – and was on the panel in the early 1980s that decided to go forward with Metro Link.

In those days, then-U.S Rep. Robert A. Young, a Democrat from St. Louis County, and senators “did a lot of the early work” on federal studies of the proposed Metro Link, Costello recalls, and then local governments had to decided whether to commit to matching funds to get federal money.

“There were two votes for and two against bringing Metro Link to the area,” recalls Costello. “And I broke the tie.”

Not everyone thought the light rail line would be a success. “The bean-counters in D.C. said Metro Link wouldn’t have the ridership,” Costello recalled. “But their projections turned out to be off the mark. It’s been one of the most successful light rail systems, in terms of increased ridership, in the country.”

The initial phase of Metro Link finally opened in 1993, from Lambert airport to East St. Louis. In 2003, the line was extended to Scott Air Force Base. In 2007, the cross-county extension opened.

“It’s very rare for a member of Congress to have started working on a project in local government and then come to Congress and see it through,” Costello said. “I’m proud of what we accomplished.”

Fights to expand Scott Air Force Base

It wasn’t easy for Costello to follow in the footsteps of the near-legendary Rep. Mel Price, who represented the district in Congress for 44 years before his death in 1988.

During his four decades in the House, Price rose to chair the powerful House Armed Services committee for 10 years. Like Price, Costello became committed to expanding the missions of Scott Air Force Base, the biggest employer in the Metro East.  

But, unlike Price, Costello opted to work his way up the ladder of another committee: the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on which he rose to become the chairman (and currently the top Democrat) on the aviation subcommittee.

“Every transportation bill that we’ve past in last quarter of a century, I’ve had at least a small part in – and, in some cases, a larger role,” said Costello. “And we’ve been able to make a number of transportation improvements in the St. Louis region.”

Aside from the Metro Link expansion and the construction of the Clark bridge and the new bridge across the Mississippi, Costello has worked hard to protect Scott, which employs 14,000 military and civilians – the state’s largest employer south of Springfield.

Starting in the 1990s until the most recent round in 2005, Pentagon base-closing commissions had considered Scott for possible consolidation or even closing. And Costello helped lead the battle to keep open the base and expand its mission.

“We were able to bring local government, the business community and many people together,” he recalls. “We were able to educate, not only people back home, but people here on Capitol Hill and the Base Realignment Commission that Scott AFB had a lot of assets and the ability to grow.”

In the end, Costello said, “We were successful, and new missions have been brought to Scott.” He said the base generates about $3 billion a year to the region’s economy, and “the men and women at Scott play an integral part in all our communities.”

Unhappy with polarized politics

Compared with today’s political polarization on Capitol Hill, Costello said his early years in Congress were much more enjoyable and productive.

“I came here in the last few months of President Ronald Reagan’s final term. In those days, Reagan and [House Speaker] Tip O’Neill could disagree but also sit down and have a drink and socialize at night,” Costello recalls.

“That is almost non-existent today, as far as the leaders are concerned.  I socialize with Republican colleagues, but at the leadership level, it just doesn’t happen.”

In Costello’s opinion, the polarization “started with Newt Gingrich. He said that, in order to rebuild the place, you had to tear it down and burn it.” Since then, Costello said, the polarization “has gotten worse, on both sides of the aisle.”

One reason for the problem, he said, is that “we have a lot of outside interests that are funding these campaigns. And they are the ones that support candidates based on single issues or a few issues.”

The bottom line: “Too often, we’re at a point at which both parties want to make political statements instead of getting things done.”

Plans to teach college, consult

Costello said he is confident that his successor, Rep-elect Bill Enyart, a fellow Democrat from Belleville with no prior legislative experience, will learn the House ropes quickly and represent the district well.

“He was a practicing attorney and was the adjutant general for the Illinois National Guard for the last five years,” said Costello, who has known Enyart for three decades but is not a close friend. “I think he’ll handle the transition as well as anyone does.”

In the meantime, Costello said he plans to pursue teaching and consulting, and spending “the vast majority of my time in Belleville.”

He said three area colleges – one in Missouri, two in Illinois – “have talked with me about teaching a graduate-level course. And I’d like to do that, just for fun, as well as to share my insight and experience with younger people.”

In addition, Costello said, “I hope to do some consulting. I’ve spent nearly 25 years in Congress, specializing in transportation. I was also chairman of the county board for eight years and chairman of the region’s council of governments.”

He said some groups – both in the private sector and public sector – had expressed interest in talking with him about consulting. But he said he put off any talks until next month. In the meantime, he is looking back on his quarter century on Capitol Hill.

“I came to Congress for a reason: There are some things I wanted to get done for our region,” Costello said, summarizing his House career. “I have tried to work in a bipartisan way; I’ve tried to reach across the aisle to get things done.”