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Toll of politics hit Sen. Kirk hard

Updated: February 26, 2012 8:09AM

Sen. Mark Kirk’s massive stroke hit me like a ton of bricks.

Not because we’re friends. We’re not.

He, the politician, and I, the reporter, have had some testy moments over the years as I’ve covered some of his campaigns.

But the evolution of Mark Kirk from aide to 10th District Cong. John Porter to congressman himself to United States senator has, in my view, been interesting and impressive.

Two weeks ago, Kirk, the Republican, and Chicago Cong. Mike Quigley, the Democrat, held a joint news conference on the subject of wasted Homeland Security money under the Stroger administration in Cook County. Together, they called for the FBI to investigate.

“We literally . . . wanted to show the public bicameral, bipartisan efforts,” said Quigley by phone from Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

Just last week, the two traveled to Poland, a country whose politics are as fractious as our own, to open up immigration avenues.

Kirk “was just jogging through the streets of Krakow,” said Quigley. He is, by almost all accounts, a physically fit 52-year-old.

On the other hand, said Quigley, Kirk grappled with stress and exhaustion and hadn’t taken a vacation in years.

“This gives you pause,” said the congressman.

Quigley’s own wife, upon learning of Kirk’s stroke, promptly reminded her 51-year-old husband that he is guilty of the same non-stop, vacation-less workload.

“You are on planes 10 hours, long meetings, there’s jet lag. I’m not complaining about the job, it’s awesome.”

But so is the toll.

At Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Quigley’s retiring colleague, Cong. Gabrielle Giffords, will be among her colleagues. Shot at point-blank range by a deranged constituent, Rep. Giffords is testament to other risks that are part of public life.

This isn’t a sob story for politicians. They’ve chosen their course. Asked for our votes. Sought these jobs. And gotten plenty of perks that go with them.

I get it.

But citizens are also guilty — I include myself in this — of caricaturing them.

“People don’t think of politicians as being human beings,” said Al Salvi by phone from his law office in Waukegan.

Salvi is a far more conservative Republican than Mark Kirk who, in his 2010 race for U.S. Senate, incurred the wrath of his party’s right wing every bit as much as he did his Democratic opposition. But Salvi supported Kirk because they agree on fiscal issues while deeply disagreeing on social issues like abortion rights.

“There is too much rancor,” Salvi said, speaking of Washington these days.

“He’s been doing a fine job. He has a lot of things to juggle,” said Salvi. “I know this from running for U.S. Senate in Illinois in 1996. You can’t be perfect.”

Salvi, a former state representative who failed in his bids for Senate and for Secretary of State, said he’ll never run for public office again but admires those who have courage to do so.

And the willingness to reach across the aisle once elected.

It’s a rare sight these days.

Mark Kirk’s empty seat at Tuesday’s State of the Union address reminds us how essential that outreach is.

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