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The Prairie Profile: John SullivanThe Prairie Profile: John Sullivan

Stepping down after 14 years as an Illinois state senator and head of the Senate Ag Committee, John Sullivan reflects on his political career and what it takes to "just get along."

Holly Spangler

October 1, 2016

9 Min Read

In many ways, John Sullivan has been the type of lawmaker our Founding Fathers may have hoped for.

He was a successful businessman, working in his family’s auction business for 20 years, before running for office. He served with distinction as a state senator for the 47th District for 14 years, and was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He will retire from his seat in January.

He’s a Democrat, elected four times by a Republican-leaning district, which means he garnered votes from both Democrats and Republicans. His constituents trust him.

Here’s a look at how Sullivan has made a difference in Illinois agriculture. 

Where did life start for you?
I was born in McDonough County in 1959. My folks lived on a farm north of Macomb until 1968, when we moved to Nauvoo on a livestock farm. Dad had 300 acres in hay and 120 cows. We baled a lot of square bales those summers. When I was a senior, my folks moved to Hamilton, and I went to college at Quincy College.

What did your early career look like?
I got a degree in history and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I went to auction school in the late '70s and got my real estate license in '83. I sold insurance for a while — did not care for that — and ended up taking a job in Rushville with Production Credit Association, then in a commercial bank and made loans for a few years. I met my wife, Joan, in Schuyler County. Then in 1986, I got into the family real estate and auction business and did that for 20 years before I got this wild idea to run for office.

What was the moment like when you decided to run for office?
At that time, we had been married for 20-some years, and we’d always said that at some point in my life, I wanted to run for office. That was just a desire I had. I didn’t know what it was going to be or when, but I always had that desire. By 2002, I’d been in the auction business for 20 years. I thought, if I’m ever going to run for office, the time now is as good as it ever will be.

Joan and I sat at the kitchen table late one night and said, "OK, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it." So then we started figuring out what I was going to run for!  

How does it feel to win an election?
It’s unbelievable. I can hardly describe it, honestly. I could tear up just thinking about it. You put so much into it — so much into it — so much energy and time with your family.

On election night, we were driving down the road and my wife and daughter were with me, and we had the radio on. We thought we were going to lose at that point. They gave the first returns for Macomb, and we won that precinct! We were all screaming and carrying on — it was quite a moment.

And then about 10:30 that night, somebody called and said, "You won." I was convinced I wouldn’t win. Then when we won, it was just unbelievable.

Surprise: John Sullivan’s a Democrat!
You know, I was never involved in politics before my decision to run. I never put up signs or worked on campaigns, so most of my friends didn’t know my politics, and I didn’t know theirs. It was kind of a shock to everybody. And I found out most of my friends were Republicans!

I know the district is a very Republican-leaning district, and I knew there was no way I could win just with Democrat votes. I was proud that in every election, Republicans and Democrats voted for me. And that’s the way it should be. You ought to vote for the person and not the party.

What have you done in the Senate that no one else could have?
There are 59 state senators, and I’m the only one that’s actively involved in farming and understands farming and all that entails. Bill O’Daniel was a voice for agriculture, but he lost the year I won. John Maitland was there, but then he had a terrible stroke and was out of commission. Duane Noland left right as I came in. It created a huge void in the Senate, where there wasn’t an ag person. I had no idea that was the role I would play, but I was really able to be that bridge between all my colleagues who are nonfarmers and my farmer colleagues.

Tell us about a moment during your Senate tenure that will always stick with you.
During my first year, the Senate leadership wanted me to vote for a bill, and it was not a good vote for my district. They put on a lot of pressure and said, "John, we need you on this one, and if you don’t vote for it, we’re not sure if we’ll be able to help you in your district." It was very pointed. I literally had people standing over me, putting pressure on me to push the button.

Vince Demuzio, a longtime legislator, told me right after I was elected that you should never vote against your district. Sometimes you take a tough vote, but as long as you’re not voting against your district and against your principles, you can hold your nose and do it — because you’ll need someone else’s vote someday, too.

This vote went against my district, and I voted no and thought, "Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen?" 

But when the leadership asked me for a vote in the future and I said no, they knew it meant no. That set a trend. It was very uncomfortable. But it was the right thing to do, and I’m glad I did it.

We sometimes have trouble working together these days. What have you learned about collaboration and compromise in your 14 years in the General Assembly?
Unfortunately, "compromise" has become a dirty word in politics. I don’t understand why. I’m one of 11 children. I grew up in a huge family. If my mom and dad said it once, they said it a thousand times: Just get along. We’d be arguing about something, and they’d rarely get in the middle of it. They’d said, "Figure it out and just get along." And we did. We worked things out.

In government and in legislating, you rarely get everything you want. It’s a compromise. It’s a give and a take. You try to make what currently is, better. You don’t make it as good as you want it to be, but it’s a process. Compromise is really key to finding middle ground.  

You’re facing a big change in your career and life this winter. How have you known when it was time to make a change in your life?
I spent 20 years in the auction business and loved it. But I got to the point where it just wasn’t as fun as it used to be. When I got up in the morning, I wasn’t looking forward to going to work the way I used to. That’s when I knew, this is a time in my life when I want to look at doing something different. And I’ve gotten to that point over the past couple years. I still very much enjoy lawmaking, and taking an issue and trying to fix it and come up with a solution. But this job entails a campaign, which is so vicious and so negative, and hard on families. My last election in 2012 was tough, and it took a lot out of us. After that election, I started thinking, "Boy, do I have another one of these in me?" My wife and I decided that 14 years is a pretty good run. I’ve enjoyed it, and it’s time to let somebody else take a look at it.

What’s one thing you do that’s directly tied to your success?
I always try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. I try to think about where the people I’m trying to persuade or convince are coming from. I’m sure that was taught through my large family. I’ve always tried to find that middle ground and get along with people. As long as you can do that without compromising your values — that’s a thin line, but it’s possible — that’s the key to my success.

What bothers you most in agriculture today?
We tend to preach to the choir. I have seen that in Springfield in my career. My concern is that there are no more farmers — no senators that are actively involved in farming. That’s a huge void. We need to bring those individuals with ag experience into the fold, and help them to understand who we are, where we come from and what we’re trying to accomplish.

• On what he’s proud of:
“All four of my children graduated from public universities in Illinois, and all with degrees in agriculture. And they’re all involved with agriculture.”

• On campaigns and election night:
“It was crazy because we really thought we were going to lose. We didn’t know what we were getting into, or how big the challenge was. Thank goodness we didn’t — if we’d known all that, we might not have run.”

• On what he admires in friends:
“Honesty. I have some really close, dear friends. We pick right back up where we left off, because those friendships really are built on respect and honesty and trustworthiness.”

• On running for office:
“Timing is everything! I thought I’d run for state representative, but redistricting changed the dynamics of the whole district. Then we looked at the state Senate district and decided to run there. I was very naive and did not know what I was getting into!”

Truck? GMC
Tractor? John Deere
Cattle? Angus
Team? Cardinals
Technology? iPhone
Reading? "Truman" by David McCullough
Hobby? My cattle
Favorite conversation? Anything with family
Free time? Spend it with family, definitely
Best decision? To marry my wife
What does your family look like? Wife Joan; four adult children: Matt, Luke, Emily and Mark; three grandchildren and one more on the way

About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Senior Editor, Prairie Farmer, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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