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The theoretical half-life of Bill Foster’s political career

Former Congressman Bill Foster poses for portrait his home BataviFriday January 7 2011. The scientist turned congressman was beout last

Former Congressman Bill Foster poses for a portrait at his home in Batavia on Friday, January 7, 2011. The scientist turned congressman was beat out in the last election by Randy Hultgren, but appreciates the time he got to spend in office. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 2, 2011 5:40PM

Hypothesis: A man with few of the gifts that often come naturally to politicians can become an elected official through careful study.

When Bill Foster announced he was a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2007, it would have been generous to call the public’s reaction indifference. They barely noticed.

Two years from that announcement, Foster would be sitting in Washington D.C., voting on landmark legislation. A little more than three years from that announcement, he’d be swept out of office after a heated race that drew national attention.

But in May of 2007, no one in politics had heard of the former FermiLab physicist. He had no experience, no connections. And with rumors of Dennis Hastert’s retirement swirling, prominent names were buzzing through local political circles.

Name recognition wasn’t Foster’s only problem. It’s unkind and unfair, but it was out there: Foster radiated nerd. He had worked in the highest levels of physics research, helping look for the particles that create matter. For all the barriers that have fallen in this country, if we are being honest, we are still unkind to nerds.

This was particularly unfair to Foster because — although he was generally the smartest guy in the room — he was a sincere listener who never used his intelligence to make others feel small. He cared about problems beyond quarks.

But he tended to answer questions with complicated, detailed answers because he saw the details of the world’s problems as complicated.

“He wasn’t good at sound bytes or answering quickly,” said former St. Charles mayor Sue Klinkhamer, who would later be Foster’s district manager. “Being out and about — that did not come naturally to him.”

“I don’t think he ever did change,” said State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat who met with Foster early in his campaign. “He was always that charming, awkward person.”

That’s coming from the people who admire Foster. And so the scientist was presented with a problem. He responded with what he knew best: an experiment, this time in the limits of language transformation.

“It’s very unnatural behavior for a scientist. Normally, we give very complicated, logical presentations and then the conclusion at the end,” Foster said. “Whereas, in politics, you have to say your very simple message and then — if you have time — you fill in the details.”

Foster would never be the natural hand-shaker, never be at ease in front of the cameras the way his opponents were. But he learned that simple repetitive output could lead to predictable, favorable results.

“It makes perfect rational sense in a situation where, at the end of the campaign, you’re lucky if the half of the people in the district have even heard you speak for 15 seconds,” he said. “So if they hear you for 15 seconds, you want them to hear your basic message. So that’s why you have to repeat it over and over again.”

Hypothesis: A man can become a politician through careful study. That same man can win elected office against experienced politicians — in a district that has been in the opposition’s hands for three decades — if he dedicates himself to campaigning full time and has good timing.

In 11 tries of running candidates in Dennis Hastert’s district, only once had the Democrats earned more than 41 percent of the vote. A Democrat had not represented the Fox Valley in Congress since the 1970s.

But Hastert’s retirement and a deep dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, created an opportunity.

Of course, Foster wasn’t terribly focused on carving out new political territory. He was much more interested in using his unique skill set in a legislative setting.

But people who saw him as an outsider underestimated his political savvy. His parents met in Washington D.C. His mother worked for Illinois Sen. Paul Douglas. His father helped write major chunks of the enforcement language in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Foster jokes this gave him a “strong recessive gene for adult onset political activity.”

“You get up and read the newspaper and you get angry at how the government is not working the way it should,” he said. “And then you … go off to work and put all that unhappiness inside you. So, after doing that for all my adult life, at some point I realized: OK, I can complain about it or I can try to make some improvements.”

When his youngest child graduated from college, he sold his interest in the lighting company he and his brother started, and declared himself a candidate.

The first signs Foster was more than a novelty came when his campaign forms indicated he was willing to put up $1 million of his own money in both a primary and a general election. That turned a lot of heads. Then he won the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. He was viewed as a real candidate. Suddenly, Illinois’ other Senator — Barack Obama — was appearing in Bill Foster ads.

A special election was held to fill the vacancy caused by Hastert’s retirement. Foster won the primary, then easily defeated Jim Oberweis in the general election.

He was elected on a Saturday. He spent Sunday traveling the district, shaking hands. On Monday, he flew to Washington, reading House bills on the plane. On Tuesday, he was sworn in to the House of Representatives and cast a crucial vote on a House Ethics Bill.

“I didn’t have hesitancy about whether I could make a contribution,” he said.

Hypothesis: A) A man can become a politician through careful study. B) He can win elected office against experienced politicians. If A and B are true, the man will go on to a long career in politics.

Four months after he was first elected, Foster won re-election for a full term. He was assigned to the House Financial Services Committee as well as the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

And then, from a grungy D.C. apartment, Foster started examining some of the most noteworthy bills to come through Congress in years. It was a playground of intellectual curiosity for Foster. He dug into legislative specifics and asked others to look deep, too.

Foster’s chief of staff Jason Linde said aides would become frustrated when they’d present a bill summary to Foster, only to be peppered with question after question on technical aspects. Linde said it took a while to convince staffers it was OK to say: “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”

“At first people didn’t know how to take Bill,” Linde said. “And then they admired him.”

Foster’s steadfast belief in his analysis sometimes cost him politically. He broke with his party on the Cap and Trade bill, which would have limited greenhouse gas emissions. People were aghast that a scientist would vote against it, but they were either underestimating his understanding of the bill or overestimating his willingness to compromise for electoral purposes. Foster says global warming is a very real problem, but it has to be confronted in an economically efficient way. He called the bill sloppy.

Foster supported the bank bailout. He saw an unprecedented financial crisis and the Troubled Asset Relief Program as the only hope. He hated parts of it, but the alternatives were too grave. After studying the health care bill — he read the whole thing — he voted for it. He caught political hell for both those choices.

Partisan grandstanding — poisoning good bills to make sure the opponents didn’t get credit — sickened Foster.

“Frankly both parties exhibit this behavior,” he said. “But I was still disappointed when you see it up close. When you see people that you know and respect and seem like good people just have this change where they become this partisan, party hack, it’s a little disappointing.”

When it came time to run again in 2010, the wind had shifted. Republican Randy Hultgren ran “Bill Foster Nancy Pelosi” together so many times it sounded like a law firm. Foster points out he lost by less than other Illinois Democrats. Then he points out: he still lost.

“He can be extremely proud of what he did,” Klinkhamer said. “We’re just in a weird time where the pendulum keeps swinging to the extremes. I always say never underestimate people’s desire for change. But they never gave Bill a chance and that really bothered me.”

Foster’s legislative experiment was cut short.

“Both in business and science, you’re dealing with machinery, calculations. And if it works you’re sort of guaranteed success,” Foster said. “Whereas in politics, you can do everything perfectly and if a wave election comes along, it’s game over.”

A new hypothesis: A man can become a politician, win office, view the inside of our political process and still come out it wanting to help others.

Bill Foster uses the word irony a lot when talking about his term. He feels a Republican administration spent years creating the financial mess, then Democrats got axed when it took more than two years to fix. The 55-year-old demands more long-term memory than may be available from the electorate.

“I’m sure history will be very appreciative that we inherited this horrible situation and we were able to avoid a Great Depression,” he said. “The benefit from that — you’re not going to see that just this year or next year. You’re going to see that 40 years from now when the system doesn’t collapse. It’s one of the ironies of politics that there’s a very large delay between cause and effect. And even longer delay between effect and people’s understanding and perception of that effect.”

But Foster has not given up on public service, even if he’s not sure where he’s headed. He’s crossed off lobbyist, but he’s got other options: he’s reviewing academic, business and scientific offers. He’s thrown his name in to work in the White House administration.

Of course, when talking about his future, he naturally expresses it in mathematical terms.

“There is a question you must answer: what fraction of your life do you want to spend in service of your fellow man?” he said.

You work for yourself for a certain fraction, Foster said. You work for your family for another fraction.

So has he filled the numerator in his dedication to others?

“Science does not provide the answer,” he said.

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