Former Senate President PHIL ROCK commanded attention when he spoke on the Senate floor, and his political memoir highlights in interesting detail who was who and how things got done during his time in government and politics.

Former Senate President PHIL ROCK commanded attention when he spoke on the Senate floor, and his political memoir highlights in interesting detail who was who and how things got done during his time in government and politics.

“Nobody Calls Just to Say Hello: Reflections on Twenty-Two Years in the Illinois Senate,” was written with ED WOJCICKI, associate chancellor for constituent relations at the University of Illinois Springfield. The book, published by Southern Illinois University Press, lists for $29.95.

Wojcicki says he had to convince Rock, 74, who was in the Senate from 1971 to 1993, including the last 14 years as Senate president, that the project would help document the workings of the state.
 
As it turns out, even disgraced former Gov. ROD BLAGOJEVICH had something to do with it.

“I got so damn mad at Blagojevich  that I could have spit nails,” Rock told me by phone, “and I wanted the message to go out to all, including my 12 grandchildren, that Springfield was a wonderful place, the seat of our government, deserved better respect than it was getting, and I was going to tell them about it.”

So he did.

Wojcicki interviewed Rock 28 times and talked to several other political players as well. The project took about seven years, Wojcicki said.

Major issues during the Rock years ranged from tax increases to Equal Rights Amendment battles to horse racing and a Rock passion — protection of abused and neglected children.
When Rock broke in 40 years ago, Cook County Democratic politics was rigidly structured. Rock really wanted to be a delegate to the state’s 1970 Constitutional Convention, but was told by both state Sen. BERNARD NEISTEIN, a “legendary ward committeeman,” and ART McGLOON, then Democratic leader in the Senate, that “It’s not your turn.”

“And that was it,” Rock said. “The conversation was over.”

He also wanted to run for Congress that year, but Chicago Mayor RICHARD J. DALEY made a deal that ensured a black candidate would get the job.

However, when McGloon was named an appellate judge, it was Rock’s turn. Rock met with Daley — “Back then, if you didn’t have the support of the mayor, you need not apply” — was slated and then elected to the Senate.

The tragic 1972 case of a 6-year-old boy who was beaten to death after being returned to the custody of his abusive father led Rock to push for laws to better protect children. The result was a mandate for quick response from state investigators when abuse was alleged.

“What we did became a national model,” Rock wrote. “This concept took off like a rocket, as it should have.”

Rock also advocated for services for the deaf and blind. He said he was surprised in 1988 when Gov. JIM THOMPSON, a Republican with whom Rock worked well, renamed a Glen Ellyn facility for the deaf and blind for Rock.

Rock supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but never saw Illinois ratify it. However, some high-profile events surrounding that battle — such as the spraying of blood by ERA activists outside the Senate in 1992 — aren’t included in the book. Wojcicki said there were some conflicting stories about what happened.

“Nobody Calls” also doesn’t deal with an embarrassing issue for Rock — his use of campaign funds to cover some of his children’s college expenses and to pay himself for some political work. (It was legal at the time for lawmakers to convert campaign funds to personal use.)

“In comparison to some of the other things we were talking about, it was not that big a deal — still is not that big a deal,” Rock told me.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that a Cook County Democrat like Rock, who was loyal to Mayor Richard J. Daley, didn’t like Gov. DAN WALKER, who beat the Daley machine to win a single term as governor in 1972.

“We weren’t quite sure most of the time where the governor stood,” Rock recalled in the book. “Walker was not comfortable with us. He was confrontational. He was a strange, strange guy.”
Perhaps less well known is that Rock, who got into the 1984 race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, also had a strong disagreement with the late U.S. Sen. PAUL SIMON, D-Ill.

“I asked Paul if he planned to enter the race” in 1983, Rock recalls. “He assured me that he would not, and he expressed no ambivalence. I took him at his word.”

Well, things change. Rock got the state party’s endorsement, but ran fourth in the primary, behind Simon, ALEX SEITH and ROLAND BURRIS.  Rock admits that he didn’t enjoy the glad-handing needed in such a campaign, but he also says that Simon “broke his promise to me.”

Rock said he and Simon were civil thereafter, but almost never spoke after the 1984 race.
On the other hand, party regulars didn’t always have much use for U.S. senators, Rock reports. For example, he wrote, a senator “couldn’t get you a garbage can.”

“At the precinct level, the U.S. senator was viewed as a political eunuch who couldn’t do anything directly for people,” he said.

And it wasn’t just party leaders who didn’t care about the Senate race. After joining the other Senate candidates at a media outlet in downtown Chicago late in the race, Rock and an aide emerged from the building to find their car had been stolen. Within hours, police found the car on the city’s south side.

“Missing were the four wheels and a few other parts, but the thieves left my campaign literature and buttons in the car,” the book says. “I don’t suppose those thieves cared who their U.S. senator would be, either.”

Rock speaks highly of LINDA HAWKER of Springfield, who he named first woman secretary of the Senate — which involves oversight of a large staff — and late state Sen. VINCE DEMUZIO, D-Carlinville, who served as his floor leader. He was very close to the late state Treasurer JIM DONNEWALD of Breese.

Conversely he didn’t think much of the late state Sen. FRANK SAVICKAS, D-Chicago, who was part of his leadership team.

“But he was the hero of the white ethnics,” Rock wrote. “I had to keep him.”

Wojcicki, in his preface, states that “Conventional wisdom might not predict that a loyal product of the Cook County Democratic organization could emerge as an ethical voice for the voiceless, or as an Illinois leader who gave Republicans the courtesy of having their points of view heard, as Rock did. Rock’s story makes it clear that one can be a loyal partisan and a highly principled public official. His contemporaries agree he was a statesman with great integrity.”

The book’s title is drawn, almost verbatim, from something Rock used to say often in his days as Oak Park Township committeeman. People would call about all kinds of issues, many of which he had no control over.

“The fact is … I’d try to help ’em,” he said.

A staffer crocheted the saying for him, and Rock still has it on the desk at his law firm.

Particularly for people who are familiar with the players in state government, this book is fun and enlightening.

Rock will be signing “Nobody Calls Just to Say Hello” at a reception sponsored by Senate President JOHN CULLERTON, D-Chicago, at 6 p.m. Feb. 7 at Maldaner’s Restaurant, 222 S. Sixth St.

Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at 788-1540 or Bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com.