Former local State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie receives Simon-Edgar Award

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A former local State Rep. of more than four decades, Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25), has been awarded the 2022 Simon-Edgar Award for her years of “forceful, creative, consequential, and civil leadership in the Illinois General Assembly.” 

The award, now in its second year, is given to current and former state or local government elected officials who have “demonstrated a pattern of public service,” characterized in part by bipartisanship. 

Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar (D), who held office from 1991 to 1999, and John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, announced Currie as this years’ recipient on Tuesday, August 9.

Currie was surprised to get the call and honored to join the ranks of last year’s awardees—the 11 Illinois House Republicans who voted to override former Gov. Rauner’s 2017 vetoes, ending a two-year budget impasse.

“It’s a pretty good group of people that preceded me,” Currie said.  

Currie served in the General Assembly (GA) from 1979 to 2019, and was appointed the House Majority leader in 1997, where she was second-in-command to longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan. (Madigan was indicted for racketeering and bribery charges in connection with alleged corruption schemes in March of this year.)

Currie was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and her family moved to Hyde Park when she was 7-years-old. Her father, Frank Flynn, taught in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, and she attended St. Thomas the Apostle School, the Lab School and matriculated at the U. of C. in 1958, before leaving a year later to move out of state with her husband David P. Currie. 

She returned to Chicago when David accepted a job as a law professor at the U. of C. By then, they had two children, and Currie finished college “on the motherhood plan,” she said, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the U. of C.  

Despite these degrees, Currie never intended to enter politics. This changed after a fateful conversation with Chicago attorney and activist Michael Shakman, whose campaign she worked on when he ran for constitutional convention delegate in 1969. According to UChicago Magazine, when she asked Sharkman if he was planning to run for retiring State Rep. Robert Man’s (D-24) seat, he responded, “No, why don’t you?” 

Currie won in 1979, and said she entered the legislature as a bit of an anomaly and an “outsider” in Springfield, one of only 23 women in the 177-member GA at the time. 

“But if you’re (in the legislature) for a long time, and if you listen to other people, if you don’t assume the worst about them, then they begin to take you seriously,” she said.

During this time, Currie worked on two programs that allowed low-income earners to keep a greater portion of their paycheck without reductions to welfare, the Earned Income Tax Credit Freedom and Make Work Pay. She also spearheaded Preschool for All, a program that made Illinois the first state in the nation to make preschool free for all 3 and 4-year-olds. In 2016, she chaired a bipartisan task force to address school funding reform, adding $350 million to tackle inequalities resulting from the state’s reliance on property taxes to fund public schools.

She also helped implement the Freedom of Information Act, juvenile justice reforms, clean air and water legislation; and fought for legalizing gay marriage and outlawing the death penalty. She headed up former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (R) impeachment, and supervised congressional redistricting following the 2000 and 2010 censuses. 

Her 40-year service remains the longest of any woman in the state, and to this day Currie is the only female Majority Leader in the history of Illinois. 

Upon her retirement in 2017, Currie told the Herald that she would continue to pursue working on education, social welfare and criminal justice policy.

Today, Currie serves as chair of the Illinois Pollution Control Board, as well as president of the Illinois Women’s Institute For Leadership (IWIL) Training Academy, which selects 12 pro-choice Democratic women across the state each year and provides them with intensive training on how to run for office. One of their graduates was Illinois Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton.  

She’s also on the board of Restore Justice, an organization that helps young people with overly long prison terms go to court for reconsideration of their sentences.    

In her remarks last Tuesday, Currie nodded to the Hyde Park community, and her constituents’ shared priorities: “You should understand—it was easy for me. My voters cared about adequate funding for schools and a robust social service safety net, reasonable measures to stem gun violence, and an end to the death penalty. They gave me a lot of leeway—they always had my back.” 

The award emphasizes statesmanship and bipartisanship, and in the press release Shaw noted that Currie exemplified a leader with a strong partisan perspective who was respected on both sides of the aisle, often able to find common ground. 

Edgar was one of six governors that led Illinois during Currie’s tenure, and said of the State Rep., “Barbara and I did not always agree on policy issues, but I’ve always respected her dedication to public service and her idealism.” 

Currie said of the legislation she passed, “None of these would have succeeded without support from members of both parties. And, as in sports, what you accomplish together is, I think, something called a ‘solid’ — something that isn’t going to fall apart any time soon.”

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August 17, 2022 at 11:30PM

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