(Aurora) A few weeks ago, Judy Biggert went out to lunch with a friend. They talked about life - not work - and enjoyed each other’s company.
For almost everyone else, the experience would have been unremarkable. But as member of the U.S. House of Representatives for the last 14 years, Biggert has barely had time for a leisurely lunch. Even meals were a chance to work.
So how did it feel to eat lunch without a side of agenda?
“It felt weird,” the 75-year-old Republican said, laughing.
Biggert is in the final days of her career in the U.S. House, after losing to Democrat Bill Foster of Naperville in last November’s election in the new 11th Congressional District.
Illinois Democrats in charge of drawing new maps sliced Biggert’s 13th Congressional District into six different parts. On election night that added up to a resounding defeat for Biggert, her first ever loss. It meant the end to Biggert’s political service, but not her legacy. For 20 years, she has served as moderate Republican, known as someone who is willing to listen to both sides while still passionately fighting for her causes.
On Nov. 30, Biggert took to the floor of the U.S. House to make a brief statement about her time in Congress. At the end, she tried to turn the floor back to the Speaker of the House, but was interrupted by other congressmen who wanted to add their gratitude.
“(You have) respect on both sides of the aisle,” U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat, told her. “You listen, you work, have energy and you want to make this country a better place.”
Growing up in Wilmette, the daughter of Walgreens president Alvin Borg, Biggert says she never dreamt she’d end up in Congress. In the 1950s, women had limited options. During one of her classes at Stanford University, she had a professor would only give one A in the class. It came down to Biggert and another student. The professor gave the A to the man because he would need it more in his future career, Biggert remembered. After graduation, Biggert was advised to consider a career in retail.
All of this bothered her, but none of it discouraged her. She went on to Northwestern Law School and worked in real estate law while raising her family. By 1983, she was president of the Hinsdale School Board. In 1991, some friends invited her over, ostensibly to watch a Bears game. When she arrived, they asked her to run for the state legislature.
She won that primary easily starting a streak of 20 straight primary or general election wins. In Congress, she continued to fight for education, which she saw as a key to her own personal success story. Her first legislative bill made it easier for homeless kids to stay in school. She liked to build consensus, like a 2011 bill that made it easier for people to obtain flood insurance.
“I just felt that I needed to give back because I was so fortunate,” she said. “I have always viewed public service as a privilege and not a career.”
After losing to Foster in November, Biggert spent about a day feeling sorry for herself. Then, the grandmother of nine started packing up her Washington and Hinsdale offices, while trying to find jobs for her staffers, some who had been with her for two decades.
Biggert’s last day in the House is Thursday.
In the past few weeks, her House office has been filled with big red recycling bins. Staff was going through 250 boxes of documents, shipping some to other congressional offices, others to archives. Her office window was lined with plaques she’d received from dozens of organizations she’d helped.
“Unfortunately, I tend to save things,” she said. “They’re beautiful and they all mean something to me.”
Biggert still hasn’t finalized her next step, but she hasn’t had much time. Weeks after she lost the election, she was still in Washington. D.C., as part of the intense fiscal negotiations. She was there, preaching moderation and consensus.
“Listening is the key,” she said in her November farewell statement. “Lawmakers must listen to those around them as one American to another, as neighbors with shared values, without assuming that any difference of opinion is evidence of greed, ignorance or malice.”
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