The onion and the Rep. Hare

A breakfast interview with Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.) begins with words that later may haunt him: “Gee, I hope I don’t spill anything on myself.”

A most delightful member of Congress’s freshman class, Hare, 56, has bravely agreed to meet at Pete’s Diner & Carryout on Capitol Hill and have his eating habits dissected.

It’s early and he apologizes for already having ordered his first cup: “I had to have my coffee.” But the beverage he prefers to drink throughout the congressional day? Fresca. His office is fully stocked with the citrus no-calorie soda.

The congressman explains that he usually goes to the Longworth cafeteria early in the morning for a cup of coffee and maybe a bagel or two. “[I] sit there and wake up,” he says.

Hare is a bit of a tortoise. He’s slow to warm up, but once he does, his stories could keep you in stitches for hours. He’s not one for chi-chi eateries and admits that Pete’s — a greasy spoon offering the usual pancake, Belgian waffle, fried egg fare — is just his speed. The former aide to Illinois Democratic Rep. Lane Evans, who retired in 2006 due to Parkinson’s disease, looks at ease in a wooden booth across from his spokesman, Tim Schlittner, a clean-cut young aide who listens quietly as his boss runs the show.

Hare’s show doesn’t feel like a show. He’s in Washington, he says, because he has a deep affection for the constituency he and Evans built over the last decade.

Hare says if he had lost his race he’d have studied to be a mortician. And he certainly has the humor for such a dark profession. Hare has a cherubic face, clear blue eyes, and a gray-white mustache that matches his hair. He’s Rodney Dangerfield, but he’s also Wilford Brimley of the Quaker Oatmeal commercials.

The waitress arrives and Hare, already on his second cup of coffee, orders a ham-and-cheese omelet with a side of white toast. Hold the potatoes, please. He says the pancakes were tempting, but, rolling his eyes, notes he’s on a diet. “I’m trying to lose weight,” he says. “So far, so good. I’ve lost six pounds.”

The trouble is the endless stream of receptions he must attend, as well as the fact that he “loves all kinds of food.” Favorite spots back home include Jim’s Ribs, Whitey’s Ice Cream and Harris Pizza. “The food I absolutely love the most is bad for you,” he says earnestly. “I love pizza and tacos. I’m going to start drooling here soon. So far the only thing I don’t eat a lot of is eggplant.”

Two years ago, Hare went to Weight Watchers and lost 65 pounds. He didn’t mind the weigh-ins, he says. No one there ridiculed him. At a recent caucus meeting he chose the fruit plate. His colleague, Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), asked, “Are you eating healthy today?” To which Hare replied, “I’m eating to lose weight today.”

Hare is serious about losing weight. He even once took the advice of a doctor, who suggested he carry around three 16-pound bowling balls to see what’s it’s like to carry an extra 48 pounds. Hare did it, and now knows he doesn’t want to carry those 48 pounds permanently.

Before he ran for Congress, Hare says he worked out two hours a day at Rock Island Fitness in the District. “I’d start out in the sauna,” he says, adding that when he’d work on the treadmill, someone would inevitably tap him on the shoulder and ask, “How’s Lane?”

Hare’s physical folly comes midway through the meal when a gloopy onion from his omelet plops onto his red-and-navy striped tie. The lawmaker is oblivious; his spokesman squirms as he tries to figure out a polite, discreet way to inform his boss of the mess.

Schlittner finally tells him. Hare glances down, and with little thought, he picks off the onion and pops it into his mouth.

Problem solved.

Before Evans became ill, Hare had no plans to run for Congress. “My plan was to stay working for him,” he says. He recalls the day he left his job as district director. “That was a tough day,” he says. “It’s hard to leave something you’ve done for 24 years. It was tough. It was very emotional. Lane is like a member of my family.”

Their 30-year friendship dates to 1976 when they met on the presidential campaign of former Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.). Evans was running as a delegate to the convention, and Hare was a union leader of the Seaford Clothing Factory. In 1980, they crossed paths again when Hare was an Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) delegate and Evans was coordinating the Kennedy delegates.

The night Kennedy went down was the night that Hare created a homemade “Lane Evans for Congress” sign. Evans was a legal-aid attorney who represented battered women. “I told him, ‘I think you ought to run for Congress,’” Hare recalls. And over a lasagna dinner one night at Hare’s house, Evans agreed. The campaign was hard-fought. Both men mortgaged their homes to run.

After Evans won, he asked Hare to come work for him. Hare said no. He was content being a line-cutter and a union man at the clothing factory, despite the dangers of the job. Of 50 employees, he was one of three who got out with all 10 fingers. “You don’t want to hear this at breakfast,” he says, noting the workers who lost their thumbs.

Evans eventually found the words to convince him: “He said something to me that I still remember: ‘I know you love being a union steward, but instead of 350, how about serving a half million?’” Shortly thereafter Hare became Evans’s district director.

Hare has always been big-hearted. When his mother, Anita, died of congestive heart failure, he worked through his grief by becoming a hospice volunteer. “I really like helping people when they need help the most,” he says. “People who are dying are the bravest people you are going to meet.”

Throughout the meal Hare shifts between the macabre and hilarious — sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. His humor, he says, comes from his father, a machinist, who made a point of eliciting laughter from him and his three sisters once a day. “I can be serious if I have to be,” the congressman insists. “I have a temper. I don’t like people who are rude.”

He proved as much in elementary school after his younger sister lost her eye in a freak accident when a bottle shattered at the supermarket. Afterward, when children at school made fun of her, Hare beat them up.

After coming home one too many times with torn pants, Hare’s father finally asked, “Are you ever going to win one of these?”

Hare is a clean-your-plate kind of guy, and the omelet has nearly been devoured. Two pieces of toast are remaining, one with a bite out. He’s an incredibly goal-oriented eater, and places as much omelet on the fork as he can.

“I know this is going to sound corny,” he says, switching gears and discussing the minimum-wage vote, “but putting the voting card in to vote for the minimum wage I thought, ‘This is what I campaigned on.’”

Just as Hare is floored by the power of his vote, he’s still slowly, tortoise-like, getting accustomed to his title. “I’m still getting used to the ‘congressman’ and ‘sir’ stuff,” he says. “I like to be called Phil.”

More in Op-Ed

Rep. Carolyn Maloney: Time for the House to act on TRIA

Read more »