Trotter retires after nearly 30 years

Rich Miller

    Assistant Illinois Senate Majority Leader Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, has retired after almost 30 years in the General Assembly.
     Sen. Trotter has been talking about retiring for years, but he has repeatedly been convinced to stick around a while longer. This time, the entreaties fell on deaf ears. He’s done and he told me he wants to enjoy his retirement while he’s still able.
     It’s safe to say that Leader Trotter has created dozens of invaluable state programs on healthcare and social services over the decades.
     He was the Senate Democrats’ top point person on appropriations for years, and that “budgeteer” status gave him the access and the power to help shape the government in incremental measures with every new state budget. His contributions cannot be minimized.
    From KidCare, to things like clean needle exchanges, mental health programs, HIV programs — pretty much anything whatsoever to do with improving the health of people in Illinois — Trotter (who has a master’s degree in Health Policy of Jurisprudence from Loyola Law School and was an administrator at Cook County Hospital) has been part of it.
     Trotter is also well known for his mentorship of young African-Americans. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched him stop a conversation among older people to make sure a young black person’s voice was heard.
     Rep. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, is probably one of his most successful mentorships. Sims served on the Senate appropriations staff under Trotter, then became the caucus’ budget director and, after law school, became a state representative who is now chairman of the House Judiciary Criminal Law Committee.
     Sen. Trotter got his political start with Congressman Ralph Metcalfe’s 1974 campaign. Later, Trotter helped register tens of thousands of voters for Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign. The late Chicago political expert Paul Green used to tell the story about how Mayor Washington was duly impressed when only two voters in Trotter’s assigned precinct cast their ballots for one of the other mayoral candidates.
     Trotter thought his big move to the Illinois General Assembly would happen in 1986, when then-Rep. Carol Moseley-Braun decided to run for lieutenant governor. He backed out of the race when the future U.S. Senator decided not to run statewide. Instead, Trotter wound up being elected to the House in 1988, after Moseley-Braun was elected Cook County Recorder of Deeds.
     The new legislative district map in 1991 forced him to run for the Senate the following year, where he has served ever since. Trotter turned out to be far more suited to the Senate (he often chafed under House Speaker Michael Madigan’s rule) and quickly became an indispensable member of Senate Democratic Leader Emil Jones’ team. When Jones was elected Senate President, Trotter’s power increased exponentially.
     It’s no secret that Sen. Trotter and I are longtime friends. I first met him in 1990, not long after I started writing about Illinois politics.
     I don’t have a lot of “real” friends in this business because it can cause too many problems. Politicians inevitably do stupid things, so being their friend can put you in the middle of sticky situations.
     I’ve made an exception for Trotter because, frankly, he’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known in my life. Yeah, he’s made his share of mistakes, some bigger than others. But he’s owned up to all of them and, to my mind, that’s what really matters.
     He has a biting sense of humor powerful enough to slay a man. He’s well read with a broad knowledge and appreciation of music and he loves the experience of travel. Except for the whole politician thing, he’s the type of person I like to hang with. He’s also helped me broaden my own horizons by showing me places on Chicago’s South and West Sides that I wouldn’t usually just stroll into as a white guy from Kankakee.
     The man is always trying to learn something new, which is something I try to do on a daily basis, so I greatly appreciate that about him.
     I thought it was a little weird when Trotter took control of the legislative talks on state craft beer regulations, but he mastered the subject matter and ably led the meetings. He wanted to try tackling a topic outside of his usual wheelhouse and he succeeded.
     To me, good legislators (and good people) are always trying to learn new things and move outside their comfort zones. Sen. Trotter has been a darned good legislator and I think he’s a good person. I’m going to miss him.