Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Nothing Wasted

As a youngster, State Representative Anthony DeLuca ’92 hauled waste for the family business. It was grueling, mucky work, and good preparation for Springfield.

The day after Anthony DeLuca graduated from Elmhurst College, he showed up for work as scheduled at Skyline Disposal, the waste-hauling business his family has owned and operated in Chicago Heights since 1954. His workday, a full eight-hour shift spent muscling the contents of garbage cans into the open maw of his truck, began at 6:00 a.m. Waiting for him that morning at the front door of the Skyline garage was one of the company’s long-time employees. “Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life,” the old-timer growled.

DeLuca grew up working in the family firm. He started at 12, and throughout his teenage years, any long breaks from school meant a stint on a Skyline truck. He still puts in a full day at Skyline—he’s now the chief operating officer—though for long stretches he can be found in Springfield, where he represents the 80th district in the Illinois House of Representatives. It’s a job that has DeLuca applying some of the lessons he has learned over the years in the gritty family business to one of the more intractable problems in Illinois politics: how to keep, or rather make, the state solvent.

Talk to DeLuca and it’s difficult to separate his work at Skyline Disposal and his work representing Chicago’s far south suburbs in Springfield.

“It was always understood when I was growing up that I would learn the business from the bottom up,” he said recently during a midmorning break at Skyline. The bottom of the business could be a nasty place. In those days, the company’s vehicles didn’t have the fancy automated arms that allow drivers to pick up and empty cans from the comfort of the driver’s seat. Hauling waste was a grueling, mucky business. What DeLuca really hated was when the garbage got so tightly compacted in a dumpster that it could not be budged. The only thing to do then was to climb in with a shovel and dig away.

The temptation is to suggest that this might have been outstanding preparation for a career in Illinois politics, where things can get pretty dirty. It’s both an easy line and a correct assumption.

From his first days in public service, DeLuca made an explicit connection between his experiences in the family business and his philosophy of government. Back in 2003, he ran for mayor of Chicago Heights, promising to run the city like a business. He won, took office and angered many in the suburb by daring to follow through on his campaign promises. He cut the number of salaried employees by 20 percent and restructured the remaining city workers’ health plan, producing around $2 million a year in savings.

You want him on your team
“Once you’ve experienced what it’s like to meet a payroll, your view of government changes,” DeLuca explained. “Governments like to spend more money than they take in. Businesses can’t do that. I said that I would run the city like a business. I said I would balance the budget. I meant it.”

His flinty fiscal conservatism, and his original party affiliation, made DeLuca an unlikely choice to fill the house seat he holds today. It was traditionally a Democratic seat, vacated in 2009 when Representative George Scully became a judge in the Cook County Circuit Court.

DeLuca was a Republican. That didn’t stop him from putting his name forward for consideration for the vacancy. Nor did it stop the leaders of the Democratic Party from choosing him to fill the seat. Not every Democrat was thrilled by the choice. The Democratic Party treasurer of Will County, Tom Brislane, called DeLuca’s appointment “a travesty.”

Thomas Planera II, DeLuca’s mayoral chief of staff, said he wasn’t all that surprised when his boss turned out to be the pick of the committee filling the legislative seat. “I always told Anthony he was really a conservative Democrat anyway,” Planera said. “And I don’t care what party you belong to—when a guy like Anthony comes into the room, you want him on your team. He’s got a natural charisma.”

DeLuca became a Democrat and soon won over many members of his new party. Last year, when he ran for election to the seat, he was unopposed in both the primary and the general election.

One of the Democrats DeLuca seems to have impressed occupies the governor’s office. In a budget address earlier this year, Pat Quinn praised Representative DeLuca for advancing a plan for a bipartisan commission to find and eliminate wasteful spending in state government. DeLuca’s colleagues in the state house noticed the nod. “I had people coming up to me and saying, ‘I’ve been here 20 years and I’ve never had a governor mention me,’” he said.

Golf shirt, jeans and work boots
DeLuca formed what a local daily, the Southtown Star, called his “strange alliance” with Quinn by supporting the governor on a particularly thorny issue, the 2011 increase in state income taxes. According to Capitol Fax, a newsletter about Illinois politics, DeLuca’s was the 60th and decisive vote in favor of Quinn’s tax hike. In return, DeLuca won the governor’s support for House Bill 1512, creating the commission to cut wasteful state spending. “They’ve been very supportive of me,” DeLuca says of his colleagues in Springfield.

When I visited DeLuca at his Skyline office in Chicago Heights, it didn’t take him long to volunteer, unprompted, a rough outline of his work schedule at the company. He opens the office as early as 5:00 a.m. and sometimes makes a few runs, transporting yard waste to the local collection center. When I met him on one of the summer’s unspeakably muggy mornings, he looked unbothered in a Skyline golf shirt, jeans and work boots. By 9:00 a.m. he’d already put in half a workday and was ready for breakfast.

On our way across town in DeLuca’s van, bound for a diner called The Egg and I, we crossed paths with Skyline trucks on their regular circuit around Chicago Heights. DeLuca grew up in the famously sports-crazy suburb and in Homewood, where he excelled in basketball and boxing. (Undefeated in seven amateur bouts, he said, “I learned to keep my hands up.”) But his real love was golf. He was a member of a Homewood-Flossmoor High School golf team that earned a trip to the state tournament in 1988, and was recruited to play at Elmhurst by longtime coach Al Hanke.  

DeLuca is still an avid golfer, and his family’s Chicago Heights home backs onto a public course. “Garbage trucks and golf courses,” DeLuca said: the two constants of his life.

His aide, Planera, said that to golf with DeLuca is to understand his success in politics. “You don’t want to compete against Anthony on a golf course,” he said. “He’s intense and calculating, always thinking. He’s like that at work, too.”

We passed the landmark Bloom High School on our rounds in the van. DeLuca’s first elective office was on the board of Bloom Township High School District 206, where he served from 1995 to 2003. “That’s where I cut my political teeth,” he said.  

A House debut in style
He decided to run for mayor of Chicago Heights because “I was unhappy with the direction the city was going,” he said. “We were losing more businesses than we were attracting.” DeLuca’s mayoral campaign focused on his experience running the family company. He promised to apply bottom-line business sense to the job of running the city. The biography on his Illinois House web site proudly trumpets the cost-cutting that marked his six years in the mayor’s chair. But his measures alienated many constituents, including city employees. “I received a lot of pushback,” he said. “People had difficulty understanding that I was going to do what I had campaigned on.”

DeLuca was named to represent the 80th legislative district on a Friday morning, and told to report to Springfield the following Tuesday. On his first day in the capital, his new staff escorted him to get his House identification badge, then walked him to the House chamber and wished him luck. “I said, ‘Wait, isn’t there some kind of orientation?’” DeLuca remembered. “They said, ‘You missed it.’”

DeLuca was a quick study. His first bill provided for the electronic display of consumer recall notices. When he was getting ready to present it on the floor, a fellow legislator told him that it was a House tradition for freshman lawmakers to wear a red jacket when presenting a first bill. This was not exactly true, but DeLuca played along anyway. He asked Representative Lisa Dugan, who was standing nearby, if he could borrow her jacket: a red blazer with a leopard-trim collar. He thus made his House debut in style. The wearing of red blazers now really is a tradition for freshman legislators introducing their first bills in the Illinois House.

Springfield politics isn’t all good-natured hazing. The spring legislative session was an especially tense one, with a number of contentious pieces of legislation debated almost up to the hour of adjournment. Near the end of the session, a minor fistfight broke out between lawmakers on the senate floor.

One of the most hotly debated bills of the session went DeLuca’s way. Legislators agreed to add five new casinos around the state, including one that could land in DeLuca’s district. The plan had drawn fire from some who argue that casinos prey on the more vulnerable members of society and end up working as a tax on the poor. But for DeLuca, the upside of the new casinos is clear. “It’s going to mean jobs,” he said. “People are going to gamble anyway. It’s just a question of whether they do it here or in Indiana. The positives outweigh the negatives.” DeLuca also has taken an interest in the state’s relationship with municipal governments, and chairs the House Democratic caucus for local government relations. He’s wary of Governor Quinn’s proposal to reduce the percentage of tax revenue the state shares with local communities, a cut that DeLuca said would compromise vital services like police, fire protection and snow removal.

When DeLuca runs for reelection in 2012, it will be in a newly remapped district. Under the redistricting plan adopted last spring, the 80th district will extend from Chicago Heights to rural Manhattan, Illinois, and nearly as far west as Interstate 55. It will be a diverse district, home to farmland and blue-collar suburbs, pockets of poverty and enclaves of pricey McMansions. For a politician who has managed to effortlessly navigate the boundaries between antagonistic political parties, it is the sort of place that could feel like home for years to come.

DeLuca says he’s not thinking too much about his electoral future. “I’m concentrating on my job and trying to do it the best I can,” he said.

Welcome to the first day of the rest of his life.

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