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The Only Senator From Illinois

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The Only Senator From Illinois

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Back in the mid-2000s, when he was serving alongside Barack Obama, Dick Durbin used to joke, “I’m the other senator from Illinois.”

Actually, he wasn’t. Barack Obama was the other senator. And so was everyone else who has represented Illinois since Durbin joined.

Although he has only been in the Senate for 16 years, making him 31st on the seniority list, Durbin has already achieved the distinction of serving alonsgide more seatmates than anyone else in that body. He’s was the junior senator to Carol Moseley Braun, and he’s been the senior senator to Peter Fitzgerald, Barack Obama, Roland Burris and Mark Kirk.

Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii has been in the Senate for nearly 50 years, but only alongside three other senators. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who has been there since 1975, has also had only three seatmates.

It’s not only the rotating cast of sidekicks that has made Durbin such an important fixture in Illinois politics. It’s the records of his colleagues. Moseley Braun, a former Cook County Recorder of Deeds in over her head in the Senate, was constantly defending herself against the scandals that would result in her 1998 defeat. Fitzgerald was a one-term fluke who couldn’t get along with his fellow Republicans and didn’t even bother to run for re-election. Obama spent most of his term running for president. Burris, under a cloud because of his appointment by indicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was shunned by the Senate and named one of Time magazine’s “100 Least Influential People.” Kirk suffered a stroke in January. That is obviously no reflection on him as a person or a politician, but he has not appeared on the Senate floor since.

Basically, Durbin has been doing the work of two senators since he came to Washington. When Obama was in office, I used to ask my fellow Illinoisans, “If you had a problem that needed a senator’s attention, who would you call, Obama or Durbin?” The answer was always Durbin. It still is.

Durbin has a long way to go, however, before he matches South Carolina’s Ellison Smith, who served with nine senators between 1909 and 1944. But not even Smith got to five as fast as Durbin, so if he sticks around, and if Illinois’s other Senate continues to turn over as often as it has, he may break the record.

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