After 16 years in elected office representing the North Shore and the State of Illinois, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Highland Park) leaves a legacy both touching land he helped preserve just walking distance from his home and relationships nearly halfway around the world.
Kirk gave DailyNorthShore.com an exclusive interview December 19 as he prepares to become a private citizen January 3. He talked about his role preserving land along Lake Michigan, keeping sewage out of the lake and helping Israel maintain its strong relationship with the Pentagon.
When the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve opened six years ago, Kirk was instrumental making sure it remained a nature preserve rather than a housing development. The property spans more than a mile along Lake Michigan from Oak Street in Highland Park north into the former Fort Sheridan.
“When (former Highland Park City Manager) Dave Limardi told me it was destined to be developed with mid rises five to 10 stories high, I said no,” said Kirk, who was the 10th Congressional District representative at the time. “We were going to create the first park along Lake Michigan in the 21st century.”
It took five years from conception to completion, according to Kirk. He got former Highland Park City Councilwoman and environmentalist Joyce O’Keefe involved with Openlands, making the project became a reality.
Kirk said the preserve also played a key role as he recovered from a debilitating stroke suffered in 2012. Learning to walk again, he has since climbed the Willis Tower.
“The staircase at the bluff is a showpiece of the preserve,” said Kirk. “There are 104 steps and that’s what I used to train to climb the Willis Tower to benefit the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.”
A patient at the institute when he recovered from the stroke, Kirk made his most recent climb of the Chicago skyscraper in November, according to an Associated Press report.
Lake Michigan has played a key role throughout Kirk’s career in the House of Representatives and the Senate. He said it represents one of his proudest accomplishments and his greatest regret. In both cases it had to do with his effort to curb dumping of raw sewage into the lake.
“I fought for what became known as the Kirk amendment,” said Kirk. “It prevented the dumping of (pollutants) without prior public notice. If anyone gave notice, I was going to make sure everyone knew who it was.
What was Kirk’s biggest regret in 16 years in elected office?
“That I couldn’t get a permanent ban on dumping into Lake Michigan,” said Kirk.
When it comes to the accomplishment Kirk said makes him most proud it is his role in the creation of the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, which tends to the needs of both veterans and active members of the military.
“It’s a model for the whole country,” said Kirk. By serving vets in the same place as active duty sailors at Naval Station Great Lakes, it assures the veterans of quality care. “They would never treat veterans the way they have at some places when there are sailors right there.”
Always a strong supporter of Israel, Kirk’s influence was felt in the foreign affairs arena too. When the Israelis were prepared to sell advanced technology to China a few years ago, Kirk said the Pentagon was ready to cut Israel out of the program to develop and receive the F-35 fighter jet, the country’s newest model. He intervened.
“I was in Israel when this happened and I contacted the (American) Secretary of Defense for Israel,” said Kirk. “That was the key to overcoming it.” He also pushed Israeli officials. “I told them you wouldn’t want a missile made in Israel to hit an American plane. Their first two F-35’s were delivered last week (December 12).”
Kirk lost his bid for re-election November 8 to Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Hoffman Estates).