Hastert’s Quiet New Gig

Former Speaker Has Low Profile

Posted May 19, 2009 at 6:05pm

Once a wrestling coach, always a wrestling coach.

Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is playing a key role in Chicago’s pitch for the 2016 Olympic games, an event where his beloved sport could be one of some two dozen showcased in his hometown area.

Sources say Hastert, who coached the sport at the high school level, has become a trusted adviser and deputy to Pat Ryan, the chairman and CEO of the Chicago 2016 bid committee, particularly on infrastructure and governmental affairs issues — and all things related to the mat.

“Having the former Speaker … as a supporter and member of the committee is incredibly helpful, given his insight, expertise, contacts and passion for the sport,— Chicago 2016 spokesman Patrick Sandusky said. “He’s an invaluable asset to our bid.—

The quintessential behind-the-scenes operator while in office, Hastert left Congress abruptly less than two years ago, creating political controversy back home by meddling in the messy GOP primary in the special election to replace him. Democrats eventually picked up the seat.

Since then, Hastert largely has shunned the public eye, avoiding fundraisers and other insider events in favor of rural Wisconsin.

The former Speaker declined repeated interview requests for this article. Andrew Zausner, Hastert’s boss at the law firm Dickstein Shapiro where he has worked as a senior adviser for the past 11 months, wrote in an e-mail that Hastert “is a private person these days and has no desire to do interviews.—

But according to numerous former colleagues, Hastert hardly is slipping into Howard Hughes-like seclusion.

In addition to his Olympics work, he keeps a downtown office at Dickstein Shapiro, working three days a week and pulling down $500,000 per year, according to multiple sources — a handsome sum considering he could be drawing three other pensions from his days as a Member, teacher and state legislator.

“He never wanted to be in Washington — he’s an Illinois guy,— says a former Hastert aide. “There’s a lot of country in him. “

A former state legislator and high school teacher, Hastert was elected in 1986 to represent a then-rural district with a boundary that started about an hour’s drive west of Chicago’s Sears Tower. Nearly 25 years later, the shape of Illinois’ 14th district has not changed dramatically.

Its demographic makeup, however, is a different story altogether.

The year Hastert was elected, almost 95 percent of his rural district’s population was white. Two decades later, the district is now largely suburban, and roughly one-quarter of its population belongs to a minority group.

Hastert was a good fit for his conservative district, winning cycle after cycle by comfortable margins. His affable personality also proved attractive to then-Republican Whip Tom DeLay (Texas), a conservative firebrand who was looking for a soft-spoken frontman to provide cover while he waged political warfare in the wake of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) departure 10 years ago.

“He’s the opposite of Newt, who wants to be on the news, wants to be in the limelight,— says Ralph Hellmann, a lobbyist at the Information Technology Industry Council. “Denny’s the opposite, which is why they picked him when Newt stepped down. He was going to be behind the scenes and everybody’s friend.—

Ultimately dubbed the “accidental Speaker— before Democrats won back the majority in 2006, Hastert’s reluctance to embrace his public role perhaps complicated his remaining months in Congress.

Less than two months before the 2006 elections, news broke that then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had exchanged inappropriate instant messages with underage House pages — and the Speaker’s office may have known about it.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct later largely exonerated Hastert, but the then-pudgy leader was said to have taken the finger-pointing personally.

He left House leadership after the election, returning to the Energy and Commerce Committee where his old friend, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), was the panel’s chairman.

Once in the minority, many believe Hastert stuck around because he was optimistic the committee was going to pass an energy bill. Once it became clear the legislation was going nowhere, however, Hastert reckoned there wasn’t much need for him to stay.

Hastert officially resigned his seat on Nov. 26, 2007, setting the stage for a costly special election in March 2008 that the National Republican Congressional Committee could ill-afford to win — or lose.

The GOP primary featured wealthy local dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, who had lost four high-profile elections in recent years, and state Sen. Chris Lauzen.

Lauzen and Hastert, whose districts partially overlapped, are said to have a storied — and mutual — distaste for one another. And much to the chagrin of the local Republican establishment, Hastert endorsed Oberweis in the primary to spite Lauzen, hoping free-spending Oberweis would at least keep the seat in GOP hands.

Oberweis went on to win the GOP primary before losing the historically Republican seat in the special election to an unknown scientist, now-Rep. Bill Foster (D).

“He totally walked out on that House seat and really hasn’t lifted a finger since,— a Republican operative from Illinois says.

Later that year, Hastert inked a deal with Dickstein to be a senior adviser, a position sources say provides him the right blend of salary, free time and policy work.

Undoubtedly capable of making well north of $1 million for a more traditional lobbying position, sources say the job allows him a comfortable lifestyle and the flexibility to spend time with his family.

For Dickstein, it builds on their stable of former lawmakers, who are invaluable when it’s time to close a deal. The firm also employs former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and former Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.).

The firm declined comment for this report.

“Denny Hastert does not enjoy this town, he uses this town as a money-making vehicle for his family,— another former aide said. “He wants to get out of here as soon as can.—

When he’s not in Washington, D.C., sources say the former Speaker splits his time between Wisconsin and the Chicago exurbs. The 67-year-old former Member, who has lost a considerable amount of weight since leaving office, recently built a large post-and-beam house overlooking the Mississippi River in western Wisconsin, where he fishes and plays with his dogs.

“He looks younger than he did when I worked with him a decade ago,— Hellmann said. “He seems about as a happy as I’ve ever seen him.—

Hastert also is a board member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and appears to be keeping out of politics, a sport he never cared for much.

But Olympic-style wrestling is a different story altogether. Having served as president of the National Wrestling Congress, the longtime booster of the sport is said to be lobbying the White House to become more involved in the Windy City’s bid, for which the outcome will be decided next fall.

“His passion for the sport is real,— Chicago 2016 spokesman Sandusky says.