(Editor's note: The Illinois Review first published this account).
On a blisteringly hot June afternoon in 1986, Denny Hastert was nominated by a convention of Republican committeemen at the Illinois Math and Science Academy gymnasium to succeed the ill U.S. Rep. John Grotberg.
Hastert, a state representative, lived outside the expansive 14th Congressional district. Just weeks earlier, he was politically unknown beyond a remote corner of the 14th, which overlapped with his legislative district. He had served in Springfield first by appointment to a vacancy, followed by two elections in a Republican district.
Hastert’s elevation began a series of events that culminates Wednesday morning, when U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin will pronounce sentence on the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, head of the legislative branch of our federal government.
In one of his last acts of self-defense, Hastert has provided Judge Durkin with 40 letters of support from friends and fellow former public officials. None address acts now in the public record when he was a wrestling coach and high school teacher.
Since Hastert’s 2015 indictment for financial and related charges over hush money payments to a child sex abuse victim when he coached wrestling in Yorkville some 35 years ago, attention has focused on his victims’ stories and Hastert’s recent behavior that brought federal investigators into his life.
No one has discussed how he became a Congressman. Until now.
Dennis “Denny” Hastert was endorsed for Grotberg’s spot by three key players in the 14th district. Illinois senate Republican leader James “Pate” Philip, in his local capacity as DuPage County GOP chairman, Kane County Republican chairman Jan Carlson and, most importantly, Kendall County State’s Attorney – and GOP chairman – Dallas C. Ingemunson effectively handed Denny the keys to a Congressional career.
And now, not one of those three original key supporters appear as an author of a public letter of support to Judge Durkin.
The politics went like this. The 14th district had been put in play by former Representative Thomas Corcoran’s 1983 decision to challenge U.S. Senator Charles Percy. A five-way race broke out in March 1984 to succeed Corcoran. Then-state senator Grotberg was the establishment candidate, backed by the three GOP chairmen. Grotberg was expected to make short work of the upstart candidates and cap off his career with D.C. service.
Except, an independent conservative challenger, attorney Tom Johnson of West Chicago, gave Grotberg – and his backers – a scare. On election night, Grotberg prevailed by less than two votes per precinct.
Sadly, Congressman Grotberg’s health deteriorated. By his one-year mark in office, well before the 1986 primary in which he was not challenged, Grotberg was essentially resident at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, receiving considerable care and reportedly compos mentis only occasionally.
The three chairman went to work. If Jeanne Grotberg, a lovely lady, acting on the Congressman’s behalf, resigned his place on the ballot prior to 30 days after the primary, election law said another primary would be run. In that primary, the inconveniently popular Johnson might deliver an upset.
On the other hand, postponing Grotberg’s resignation would put the vacancy in the hands not of the voters, but those of the district’s Republican precinct committeemen – many of whom had jobs with the State of Illinois, which were controlled directly or indirectly by the three chairmen and their friends in the Republican administration.
Denny, already known as an amiable and dutiful follower of Springfield orders, was told to get his kit together for a Congressional run. David Axelrod had already landed in Kane County to assist coroner Mary Lou Kearns, who was getting uppity about Grotberg’s record, suburban sprawl and boss politics.
The confluence of a first-time Republican candidate, an appealing countywide Democrat official from the district’s largest county, and the hated Democrat super-consultant gave shivers to Beltway Goppers, who wanted Illinois locals to solve the problem, and did not care how.
Jeanne Grotberg, bearing incalculably greater concerns than suburban Republican politics, held off declaring John’s vacancy.
Thus, in an apposite precursor to this very day’s Trump – GOP dispute, the voters were bypassed. The establishment would decide the next Congressman.
They chose someone about whom the federal government has reported to Judge Durkin, in its sentencing memorandum, “sexual acts against Individual A and other minors”, all apparently high school students in Denny’s charge, just years before the 1986 convention.
“In October 1979, in the midst of high school wrestling season, defendant chose to pursue a public life in politics. Defendant’s sexual abuse of boys on his team occurred before this decision and was still occurring at the time defendant chose to enter public life. Defendant was not just a teacher and coach. Defendant was famous in Yorkville as the beloved coach of the state champion wrestling team; the leader of a boys’ club that took trips to the Grand Canyon and the Bahamas; and the popular teacher who gave kids rides in his Porsche,” the federal government told Judge Durkin, citing David Bernstein’s article, “Small Town, Big Secret,” in the September 2015 edition of Chicago Magazine (Pages 17 and 18, Federal Sentencing Memorandum).
On the day Rod Blagojevich was arrested, John Kass and I appeared together on Milt Rosenberg’s “Extension 720” on WGN-AM. John very graciously credited me with coining the term “Combine” to describe the non-partisan business interests that dominated Illinois government until the outsider Bruce Rauner was elected.
It was the Republican side of the Combine that saw the Grotberg vacancy coming, finessed its declaration, selected a dutiful order-filler and rammed him through in a sweltering Aurora gymnasium. Johnson, disgusted, quit the race before the convention.
Hastert’s lone opponent that day had placed third against Grotberg in 1984. Elgin’s Dr. Dick Verbic stood before Republican committeemen and said, according to the Tribune’s John Schmeltzer, “a Chicago precinct captain would be more at home with what is about to happen here than any Republican ever could be.”
Thus did Denny Hastert enter national politics.
And thus, the question remains – of his three key backers, those now so noticeably absent from his letter-writing public supporters – how well did they know Denny Hastert when they pushed him up the political ladder?
WIND’s Dan Proft wrote in the Chicago Tribune last fall that Denny’s case shows the wages of ‘morally comatose’ Illinois Republicanism.
Interestingly, for Ingemunson, the wages of pushing Denny through a payroller’s convention included financial rewards by representing Metra and others to his hand-picked Member. As Denny moved up the Congressional ladder, business only got better.
Reading the “save-my-skin” letters Hastert delivered to Judge Durkin made me write this. Hastert tried to file them under seal, so we would not know his key backers today. Originally, there were 60. When Judge Durkin rightly insisted they be filed publicly, 20 withdrew. The Combine, except the three who got this whole career started, speaks through those letters.
Denny Hastert’s victims deserve to know how this abuser ended up running a branch of the United States Government. The folks who know aren’t writing letters, and they aren’t talking. Ingemunson dodged the subject when raised by Bernstein in his article. It pains me to say that the rest of the Chicago and Illinois press corps have not been asking.
But no one should attend Wednesday’s sentencing without knowing how the story whose end they will witness, began.
WGN-TV Republican analyst Chris Robling managed Tom Johnson’s 1984 Congressional campaign.