Lane Evans' retirement may provide pick-up opportunity for Republicans

Illinois Democratic Rep. Lane Evans announced yesterday that he will retire at the end of this year, after having served 12 terms in the House. Evans cited his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease, diagnosed in 1995, as the reason for his decision.

The announcement sets up a potentially competitive race for his eastern Illinois district, a traditionally Democratic area that has trended slightly more Republican in recent years. It also opens the senior Democratic position on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee for the first time since 1995.

Evans, 54, has been staying at his Washington-area home for the past month after his doctors advised him to take time off from work. He last cast a roll-call vote on Feb. 14 but has plans to return to work soon.

“This is a tough day for me,” he said yesterday in a statement released by his office. “When I announced in 1998 that I had Parkinson’s disease, my doctor said that this condition would not interfere with my work and that I would be able to perform at a high level for a number of years. That window of opportunity is now closing.”

“I have come to recognize that the time needed to address my health makes it difficult to wage a campaign and carry out my work as a representative,” he said.

He signed the statement with “Semper Fi,” a reference to his service in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder characterized by the gradual loss of brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. As the disease progresses, patients experience tremors in the hands and arms, stiffness in limbs, slowness of movement and impaired balance and coordination but no decline in mental capabilities.

Evans is among the youngest victims of the disease, which usually strikes people more than 65 years of age.

Yesterday, many House Democrats expressed sadness that one of their most well-liked colleagues would be leaving.

“He was a tough Marine ... and to have that tough guy taken down by this is humbling. It can happen to anyone,” said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the second-ranking Democrat on Veterans’ Affairs. He is expected to succeed Evans as the senior Democrat on the committee, pending a vote of the Democratic Steering Committee.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) praised Evans as a “proud Marine” who has been “a champion for veterans and one of their leading advocates in Congress.”

She noted his efforts to win compensation for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, provide mental-health care to veterans and spur investigations into Gulf War syndrome.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a close friend and Illinois colleague of Evans, called him a “courageous fighter for all good causes and ... an incredibly decent and kindhearted man.”

“Lane has been a role model for me and so many others in the House because he has always taken principled positions and he always works to help those in need,” she said.

Evans announced his retirement a week after Illinois held its primary elections, triggering a complex process in which Democratic county and precinct chairmen select the Democratic nominee sometime before Aug. 31.

Among the potential candidates are state Sen. Mike Jacobs, Rock Island Mayor Mark Schwiebert, Evans’s district director Phil Hare, Clarence “Mike” Darrow (grandson of the famous attorney and a former Marine Corps lawyer), state Rep. Mike Boland, state Sen. John Sullivan, Knox County State’s Attorney Paul Mangieri and Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources Director Joel Brunsvold.

Democratic sources, while not thrilled with Evans’s retirement, said they were content with the timing of the announcement, noting that the selection process allows Evans and other high-profile Democrats to weigh in on the decision while avoiding a costly primary battle.

The 17th District could provide a pickup opportunity for Republicans.

“It’s definitely going to be competitive,” said Wayne Steger, associate professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago. “Lane was somewhat of an icon, and even he had to campaign pretty hard in his last race. It’s been trending Republican as small and medium-sized towns lose their industrial base and lose the labor union vote.”

Evans won reelection in 2004 with 61 percent of the vote, 22 points ahead of his Republican challenger, Andrea Zinga, a former CNN news anchor. She is the Republican nominee again this year.

Illinois’s 2001 redistricting protected incumbents, adding more Democratic areas into Evans’s district. Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee, won in the district by 10 percentage points.

But Republicans argue that the district has moved more to the right, noting that 2004 nominee John Kerry prevailed by only three percentage points.

“The district is the quintessential swing district,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jonathan Collegio. “If Andrea Zinga can put together a good team, develop a message focused on local issues and raise the money to project that message across the district, she can turn it overnight into one of the most competitive races in country.”

Zinga reported having $3,600 on hand in her latest campaign-finance filing.

A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Bill Burton, said he is confident Democrats will hold on to the district.

“This is a Democratic seat,” he said. “It would be a fool’s errand for the Republican Party to waste their time there.”