Lots of politicians love the chance to showcase a new road built near their constituents. For State Rep. John D’Amico, his passion is to ensure the drivers using those roads are qualified.
D’Amico, 50, was elected to office in 2004 in the state's typically Democratic, 15th district, which includes much of Chicago’s Northwest Side and the suburbs of Park Ridge, Niles, Morton Grove, Lincolnwood, Skokie and Glenview. Shaken by the deaths of four youths, D’Amico pressed to increase the legal driving age in the state to 18.
“I want to try and make the roads as safe as possible in Illinois,” D’Amico said.
D'Amico could not get enough momentum to raise the legal driving age, but believes the idea shaped people's feelings toward teen drivers.
“It raised awareness and had parents talk with their children and let them know (driving) is not their right," D'Amico said. "This is something we are letting you do.”
D'Amico said he supports the current law requiring 50 hours of driving practice for new drivers under 18-year-old, though some constituents don't.
“There were parents who felt that 50 hours of training behind the wheel is an imposition,” said State Rep. Elaine Nekritz. “There were many parents who said they didn’t have the time to devote to that."
But D'Amico points to recorded statistics of teen accident reports to support his position. According to data from IDOT, total fatal crashes by drivers from 16 to 20 went down 28 percent from 1996 to 2000.
“Rep. D’Amico has been a strong champion for teen driving laws in Illinois,” said Beth Mosher, a spokeswoman for AAA Illinois.
Once he returns to the state capital, D’Amico promises an effort requiring drivers to use a hands-free device for cell phones throughout the state, similar to the law that has been on the books in Chicago for a few years.
“At least this way they will have another hand free to grab the wheel,” he said. “Holding that phone to your ear is definitely a huge distraction and you are not concentrating on where you are on the road.”
D'Amico is chairman of the Illinois Transportation Committee.
When the legislature does return later this year for the veto session, the question will be whether legislators can find a way to tackle the $83 billion in pension debt that threatens the state's credit rating. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn called a special session last month to address the debt, but nothing was accomplished.
“The bottom line is that whatever we wind up putting on the table has to be something we think that can hold up under the Constitution,” D’Amico said. “We all know there is going to be some change, but we have to make sure that is the right change. I don’t see the point of passing something that is going to be struck down.”
As for the gambling bill that would have expanded gaming throughout the state, D’Amico voted for that legislation, but does not appear to be hopeful that votes are there for a reversal of Quinn’s veto over the summer.
D’Amico shares office space on Chicago’s Northwest Side with his aunt, Alderman Margaret Laurino of the city’s 39th Ward. The family has been involved in politics for generations, but not all of the memories are happy ones as both of his parents served time in prison in the 1990s and his grandfather – Alderman Anthony Laurino - was indicted on corruption charges, but died before going to trial.
D'Amico works out of an office adorned with buttons filled with political history. Among the decorations is a photo of him next to President Barack Obama.
D’Amico, is a foreman with the Chicago water department for his full time job. He estimates “85 percent” of his fellow legislators have other jobs besides their elected responsibilities.
“At any given time you could lose an election so you don’t want to be out of work either,” he said.
As for this year, D’Amico does not believe his lack of an opponent makes his job easier. “Everybody is still looking at your votes,” he said. “You always have to remember that our terms are two years so there is another election right around the corner. Just because you are not opposed to this time, doesn’t mean you are not opposed [next] time.”
He says what he enjoys the most about the job is when he gets something done for a constituent either by legislation or “cutting through red tape.”
“It is a very diverse district, he said. “It is very challenging but so far I have been up to the task.”