State Senator Gary Dahl (R-Granville) says he was “bushwhacked” four years ago by Illinois leaders of the National Federation of Independent Businesses to take on one of State Senate President Emil Jones’ lieutenants.
“They asked me to form a search committee to look for someone to challenge the incumbent, Pat Welch. Little did I know it was me they wanted us to find,” Dahl recalled, while spending an hour with Illinois Review this week. “The night we won the election, the party was a lot of fun. But when we woke up the next morning my wife and I looked at each other and said, 'What have we done?'"
What Dahl 'had done' that night was defeat all odds of a bad year for Republicans and push out 22-year Democratic incumbent Patrick Welch. The people of the 38th Senate district had all they wanted of an egotistical senator who had lost interest in hearing from them.
“I heard that complaint over and over when I was talking to people throughout the district. Some folks said they wouldn’t know their senator if he walked into the room,” Dahl said. “I determined right then that if I got elected, I wouldn’t be that kind of senator. I’ve made it a priority to take care of the people of this district and let them know I’m very interested in hearing from them.”
But it wasn’t only ignoring his constituents that turned people off about the incumbent. Senator Welch had outright lied to his district's business owners.
“Right before the trucking license fee increase was passed by the Democrats and signed into law by the governor, several of us business owners went to visit Welch in Springfield. He assured us he wouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of businesses,” Dahl said. "Then he turned around and did the opposite.”
Those trucking license fees Welch supported cost Dahl and his D & D Express Trucking firm an additional $120,000 -- $1000 per truck license.
“It wasn’t just the amount of increase,” Dahl said. “It was how they did it. We had already bought our licenses for the year and then we were told to come up with an additional $1000 per each truck, after we were already well into the year. That just added to the problem.”
That additional burden on Dahl’s trucking business was an impetus for him to challenge Welch. That’s why it was a bit ironic that when the campaign heated up, the Democrats began blasting Dahl’s business practices,trying to get voters to believe Dahl wasn't concerned about his employees' safety and welfare.
“I’d said in an article years before that I didn’t buy the highest-priced tires for our trucks, and the Democrats twisted that into saying I bought cheap and dangerous equipment for our employees,” Dahl said. “It was D &D employees that stepped forward to defend themselves by placing a full page ad in the local paper, confirming I cared about our employees and kept our equipment in good shape. The Democrats lost all credibility with the voters. Anyone who knew our employees knew things were just the opposite.”
After over 700,000 Republican campaign dollars were matched by even more Democrats’ funding, Dahl came out a winner and one of the state’s few 2004 Republican pickups in an otherwise abysmal election year.
But getting elected was just the beginning of adjustments for Dahl. Coming from a business atmosphere to Springfield’s chaos was tough to get used to, Dahl said.
“It was frustrating. There was no organization. There was little respect of one side of the aisle for the other. I’d never worked in those conditions before, ” he said.
And things haven’t changed much over the last four years.
“This would be a great job if I didn’t have to go to Springfield. I love working with the people of this district. Being down at the Capitol is frustrating.”
Dahl’s legislative office across the hall from his campaign office is busy most of the time, he said, and Wednesday morning, people were waiting to see Dahl as we emerged from the interview.
"It's this way most of the time," Dahl said, smiling.
But the now-incumbent Senator Dahl is facing his own first re-election campaign and it’s hard to tell how hard Senate President Emil Jones will fight to gain back the seat. Up until now, there’s been few public acknowledgements of his Democratic opponent on the November 4th ballot. Things right now are looking pretty good for Dahl to be re-elected in 2008.
And that’s exactly what the independent political action committee United Republican Fund would like to see happen.
“Senator Dahl was one of the URF’s highest scoring conservative Senators in 2007,” URF President former Sen. Steve Rauschenberger said this week. “He’s exactly the kind of limited government, individual rights, free market and traditional values-supporting lawmaker we need more of in the Illinois.
“We’re pleased that Senator Dahl’s one of this year’s Eight in ’08 candidates. One who deserves the support of conservatives for the terrific work he’s done over the past four years in the Illinois General Assembly.”