In the winter of 1978, Barbara Flynn Currie (B.A. ’68, M.A.’73), then 38, was raising two teenagers and preparing to start a political-science dissertation at the University of Chicago.
Now, as the 25th-district representative and majority leader of the Illinois House of Representatives, Currie finds her past experiences as a mother and a student instrumental in her practice as a politician. When advocating in 2007 for more checks on gun buyers, Currie’s experience raising children helped her maintain the patience and determination necessary to push her proposals forward.
Both two-year-olds and the gun lobby are “a little terrorizing,” she said in an interview Sunday. She added that her U of C education helped her to cut through the gun lobby’s rhetoric.
“They throw a lot of fairy dust,” she said.
Back in 1978, Currie had never considered running for political office. But when a House seat in the 25th district, an area that includes the U of C, opened up after a veteran representative announced that he would retire, Currie said she decided to run.
She met her friend Michael Shakman by chance on the street. Shakman was a local political figure who spearheaded the battle against political patronage in the 1970s.
“Mike, are you running?” she asked, referring to the open seat.
“No,” he said. “Why don’t you?”
“And I said, ‘Huh?’” Currie related. With short hair and blue eyes, the veteran politician sat in her campaign office while phones rang around her. She wore a blue sweater with a blue pin that said “Currie.” Her district includes Hyde Park and extends down to nearly 100th Street—an area encompassing approximately 105,000 people. She was re-nominated Tuesday, winning a landslide victory with 83 percent of the votes, poising her to launch what will be her 30th year in the House.
Thirty years ago, Currie had been involved in community groups, but she had never dreamed of being an elected politician.
“No, no, no, it never occurred to me,” she said. But she added that she had five brothers and sisters, and because they had all grown up in Hyde Park, “everybody knew somebody.” She asked friends if she should run. “Yeah, why don’t you?” they said, referring to how Currie supported many issues dear to Hyde Parkers. So she did.
At that time, she was preparing to start her doctoral dissertation and had been working on a research project about women’s political involvement.
“It never came up, because I went into realpolitik,” she said. “I won.”
But Currie said that the transition from the ivory tower to the Illinois House was not difficult to navigate.
“Anybody who has ever been the parent of a two-year-old understands the frustrations of life in the legislature,” she said. “That’s good training.”
Yet she admits that her new political life was intimidating at first. In a 1997 interview with Illinois Issues, Currie said her knees shook during her first speeches on the House floor.
“And, of course, I sat near some of the guys who only exacerbated the problem. People were coming up with feathers, tickling the backs [of my knees] just to make sure they would shake even more,” she said in the interview.
As a woman, Currie was an outsider, despite her policy abilities. Her best friend in high school aspired to marry a senator, not be one.
“Remember, I grew up in the ’50s,” she said. She was born May 3, 1940.
Now, as House majority leader, Currie enjoys the second most powerful position in the House after speaker Michael J. Madigan. In 1997, she became the first woman to hold the position in Illinois. As leader, Currie works with others to ensure that bills don’t create as many problems as they solve, a process that she says she enjoys.
“I am a policy wonk,” Currie said.
But when she was 39, Currie’s first year in the House tested her confidence and taught her to “mind my knitting”—she said she had to learn to attend to “arcane” details.
“Don’t spend a lot of time talking on the floor,” she said when asked what advice she has for freshmen reps. “Listen and find ways to build bridges and make common cause with your colleagues. Work toward consensus. Compromise if you must.”
Now, back in Hyde Park during the House recess, Currie said she hopes that locals mired in development debates will take time to listen to each other more.
“Everyone is excited about any kind of change that goes on,” Currie said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.” But she added that she also often sees some residents “taking very strong positions and not listening to the other side.”
Her role is to be a “voice for the community” rather than a decider, she added.
Asked about the Doctors Hospital at 5800 South Stony Island Avenue, Currie said, “I don’t really have an answer to that.” She was referring to the dispute between the Hyde Park Historical Society and the developer of the University-owned but currently unoccupied building.
“Happily, I’m not the alderman,” she added. “So I don’t have to deal with zoning, and I don’t have to deal with change in use.”
Currie wishes there were “more shopping” in Hyde Park.
“Even things like a lamp store, where you can get your lamp fixed,” she said.
Some contend that it is time for a change in leadership, and that Currie should leave the House to allow a younger candidate to take over. Currie and Madigan, the two giants of the House, have both been in office for decades. Her 2008 challenger, Sharon Latiker, also ran against her in 2006, securing 27.87 percent of the vote.
“Currie has not been as publicly active since [the] death of her husband and had no real desire to continue serving,” wrote Mark Allen, a local blogger, on December 31, “but was encouraged by party leaders to run and win, then resign and allow the party leaders to select a new representative.”
Nevertheless, most Hyde Parkers support Currie.
“She’s been right there for years, plugging away for good work,” said local resident Lisa Kohn on Tuesday.
For her part, Currie looks back on many accomplishments with pride, while looking ahead to future battles. “There is more to do on gun control,” she says.
Even campaigning is fun for Currie.
“It’s good to reconnect with your voters,” she said. In her campaign office on Sunday, a man in a U of C sweatshirt sorted dozens of blue Currie yard signs while volunteers and campaign workers answered phone calls.