Todd Vandermyde of NRA, during public hearing on gun safety and concealed carry laws at Bilandic Building, Friday, February 22, 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times
Updated: April 2, 2014 7:15AM
SPRINGFIELD — After a state conservation officer ticketed the National Rifle Association’s Illinois lobbyist last December for breaking a hunting law, the gun-rights advocate dutifully paid his $120 fine.
But Todd Vandermyde, one of Springfield’s most powerful and effective lobbyists, didn’t stop there.
A month later, he worked with one legislator to rewrite the law he broke.
And not long after that, he enlisted help from House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, to carry legislation that, at least initially, would have greatly restrained the authority of Department of Natural Resources police officers to venture onto private property.
“I had a run-in with a couple of cops and because of it, it educated me about the law, and I thought there were some inequities of the law that needed fixed,” Vandermyde told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Vandermyde’s efforts can’t undo the misdemeanor now on his record or get his money back. Nor are they likely to affect his eligibility to obtain a concealed carry permit under a milestone gun-rights law he helped author last year.
But they demonstrate what happens when two seemingly immovable objects — a conservation cop who enforces state law and a lobbyist who has gotten exceptionally good at writing state law — butt heads.
At least one state legislator with whom Vandermyde has battled on gun-control issues thinks he is severely out of line, a view that has ignited a bitter back-and-forth between the two along the same fault lines that have existed for years.
“Look, I like Todd. I do, in spite of myself,” said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, a gun-control advocate and a lead architect of the state’s same-sex marriage law. “But if I got a ticket and changed the law because I got a ticket, people would be screaming bloody murder. I don’t think it’s any different when someone with the level of influence and access that he has does it, too,” she said.
But those critical of his behavior in this case, like Cassidy, “hate the Second Amendment, and they really hate the First Amendment to boot, that little thing about petitioning government for grievances,” Vandermyde said. “That’s what I do all day.”
In fact, he said, what he did in pushing to change the hunting law because of his own experience is no different than what Cassidy, as an openly lesbian legislator, did in helping pass same-sex marriage last year.
“Kelly — or any other legislator — takes on personal issues. I’m sure her vote for gay marriage had nothing to do with fact she’s a lesbian. They all work on pet issues, right?” Vandermyde said.
State records show Vandermyde was ticketed by an Illinois conservation cop last Dec. 17 in an unincorporated area in the far southwestern suburbs for having a loaded crossbow with him while he was riding on an all-terrain vehicle during a deer-hunting excursion.
As is the case with hunting rifles, a section of the state Wildlife Code says that hunters who use crossbows have to have them in cases whenever they’re driving vehicles, even an ATV. Violating that provision carries a fine and is considered a Class B misdemeanor.
A report written by one of the two conservation cops who encountered Vandermyde that day on private property described him as having a “very aggravated and disrespectful tone” toward the officer who questioned him about his crossbow and wrote him the ticket — a claim Vandermyde flatly denied.
After paying his fine, Vandermyde went to work on the Legislature.
One of the bills he pushed, House Bill 4377, removes the provision in state law that hunters must case their crossbows when they’re operating a vehicle. The measure, introduced on Jan. 29 by Rep. Josh Harms, R-Watseka, passed the House last week 84-28 and now is in the Senate.
“This has nothing to do with what happened to him,” Harms told the Sun-Times.
While Vandermyde said he “worked on” the legislation with Harms and testified in favor of it in committee, Harms said, as a bow hunter, he was contemplating it before the NRA lobbyist’s scrape with the law.
Vandermyde also said he took issue with the latitude state conservation police have in being able to go onto private property, unannounced and without demonstrating probable cause, as he said was the case when he was ticketed on an acquaintance’s land.
“In light of the National Security Agency scandals, do you think law enforcement should be wandering around private property without permission? Do you think cops should be walking around your backyard just because they want to take a look? I don’t think so,” Vandermyde said. “For those guys to be traipsing around like that is about the equivalent of them coming into my house.”
During a subsequent meeting with Durkin, whose legislative district covers the land on which Vandermyde was hunting, the lobbyist brought up the issue, and the House GOP leader took an immediate interest because of the constitutional question that came into play, a Durkin spokeswoman said.
On Feb. 14, Durkin sponsored legislation that would have restricted state conservation officers to patrolling only public land and waters. Any incursions onto private property would require a search warrant and probable cause under his initial legislation.
But Durkin later significantly narrowed his bill to bar DNR police from entering someone’s home or their immediate yards without a search warrant and reasonable cause to believe the state Wildlife Code was being violated by the homeowner. That legislation unanimously passed a House committee last week, awaits floor action and is not opposed by DNR.
Durkin said he amended the bill because of a 1924 U.S. Supreme Court opinion held that unreasonable searches of property don’t extend to open fields beyond a property owner’s immediate yard.
“An issue regarding an incident in my legislative district was brought to my attention: specifically, the authority by which conservation police can enter private property to search and seize possible contraband in violation of the Wildlife Code,” Durkin said.
“This amendment codifies Illinois case law which defines the constitutional perimeters conservation police must abide by to enforce the code,” he said. “The statute at the moment is silent and seemingly places no restrictions upon the conservation police to fully conform with the Fourth Amendment.”
Vandermyde said he thinks gun-control advocates like Cassidy are targeting him personally because he has been on a legislative winning streak on gun issues, most notably getting a concealed-carry law on the books and routinely swatting down gun-control initiatives pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“What I think is going on is the anti-gunners are chafed that they’ve lost the carry debate; they can’t get any of their stuff moving in the Legislature. They’re still behind the power curve on the politics of it, on the PR of it. The Legislature isn’t in their corner. The courts aren’t in their corner,” he said.
“So, they’ve got to focus on me as an individual? They think I’m that dangerous or I’m that good of lobbyist that they have to focus on me because they want to have their little temper tantrum?” he said.
Cassidy denied being “chafed” at Vandermyde personally for his gun-rights victories. But she said she can’t say the same about some of his supporters who have reacted, as she describes it, hatefully to her stances on the Second Amendment.
“The vitriol from his people, the mail I’ve had to forward to the State Police, the voice mail, it’s all the most vile, misogynous, homophobic garbage I’ve ever heard in my life,” she said. “You don’t hear people from the LGBT community calling and leaving threatening messages, naming your children, with people who vote against the marriage bill.”
Vandermyde said he personally tried to intervene with gun advocates when he became aware some were confronting Cassidy with homophobic insults.
“I went to my Facebook page and wrote a defense. I gave her the benefit of the doubt,” he said. ‘Some of the nasty things you guys said don’t need to be said.’ I guess that makes me more disappointed in her than anything else if this is just another game of politics. I thought a lot more highly of her than that.”
But Cassidy stood by her belief that Vandermyde, in trying to change law because of his own misfortune, was wrong and ridiculed his comparison to her work on behalf of same-sex marriage.
“It’s a little different to change the law when you’re being discriminated against than to change a law when you break it,” she said. “There’s a little difference.”