DAVENPORT, Iowa — An all-consuming focus on money and too much sunlight are contributing to a broken culture in Washington, D.C., said Adlai E. Stevenson III, a former U.S. senator who has been traveling lately to talk about his nonprofit center’s work.
Stevenson, the son of the two-time presidential candidate, said lawmakers abdicate the writing of laws to staff and busy themselves too much with raising money. Congress, he said, is now a place where “tribalism” rules, and it has strayed from the collegial place it used to be where lawmakers regularly worked together on a bipartisan basis to get things done.
In part, he said, reforms to open up the Senate to public scrutiny are to blame. In the process, he said, special interests filled the void.
“When we opened the doors to let in the sunshine, we let in the lobbyists, we let in the special pleaders, the lawyers, the consultants and the money,” he said. “It’s an example, I think, of how we’ve lost our balance.”
Stevenson served in the Senate from 1970 to 1981, filling out the term of Everett Dirksen, who died in office, then winning a full term before deciding in 1980 not to run again.
He is now the chairman of the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy, a nonprofit that operates out of his late father’s home in Lake County. His wife, Nancy, is the president. They live in Hanover. The center seeks to educate people on public issues. Last year, it held a conference on campaign finance reform.
The Stevensons met last week with the Quad-City Times editorial board.
Stevenson has been out of the Senate for more than 30 years, and he said he’s alarmed at the change in the culture.
“It’s about nothing except money,” he said.
He displayed little optimism that conditions would change.
“I certainly don’t see anything happening immediately,” he said.
Stevenson was first elected as a reformer, but in saying some of the moves to open up the Senate may have gone too far, he added there must be some balance. He said the “occasional closed meeting” may be necessary to allow lawmakers to speak freely and keep out lobbyists.
“It requires judgment,” he said.
Stevenson has been a contributor to Democratic candidates. In the 2012 election cycle, he backed U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, during the party’s primary for the 17th Congressional District. He also supported U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville.
After leaving the Senate, Stevenson ran twice unsuccessfully for Illinois governor. In addition to chairing the Stevenson center, he also is the chairman of the SC&M Investment Management Co. and a founder and director of Hua Mei Capital Co., a financial services firm.
He also has written a book about his family’s intersection with the history of the United States, going back several generations.
His great-great-grandfather, Jesse Fell, an Illinoisan, was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln and urged him to run for president.
His grandfather, Adlai Stevenson, was the vice president under President Grover Cleveland. His father, Adlai Stevenson II, ran for president in 1952 and 1956, losing to President Dwight D. Eisenhower both times.