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Naperville scientist, entrepreneur eager to get to Washington

Jan 8, 2013
In The News

The office wasn’t quite in order yet. Then again, Bill Foster wasn’t in office yet, either. Not quite.

“It’s an interesting day of semi-organization around here,” Foster said.

It was Wednesday morning, and Foster was talking on the phone from Washington, D.C., barely 24 hours before his official return to Capitol Hill. His surroundings were in “various states of disarray,” he said — but some progress was evident.

“We have the computers, but no passwords to get into the computers,” he said.

A Democrat, scientist and businessman who lives in Naperville, Foster was on his way back to the Beltway after besting longtime Congresswoman Judy Biggert, R-Hinsdale, in November to represent Illinois’ newly redrawn 11th U.S. Congressional District.

The electoral boundaries contain portions of Will, DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Cook counties, including part of Naperville, Aurora and Joliet.

Foster was officially sworn in on Thursday.

His victory on Election Day took many by surprise. Naperville has not had a resident serving in the House since Harris Fawell retired in 1999 and his seat went to Biggert, and never has a Democrat represented the city on the federal level. But Foster, who earned his doctoral degree in physics at Harvard University, sees it as perfectly logical.

“The Naperville area and the whole high-tech corridor of Naperville, Lisle, Downers Grove, was always open to selecting a scientist to go to Congress,” he said.

Foster, 57, served in the U.S. House from 2008 to 2011, representing the former 14th District, generally west of the new 11th. He was defeated by Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Wheaton, in the 2010 midterm elections that established a GOP majority in the House.

He is keenly aware of the acrimony that echos in the halls of Congress. He also knows Congress at the moment has a disapproval rating hovering around 75 percent.

“It’s true that no matter how bad it was when I was in the House previously, it’s gotten worse,” Foster said. “About twice a week, my wife asks me if I really want to go back there.”

He does. Particularly high on his agenda is a return to the Committee on Financial Services, where he is eager to begin an overhaul of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac), to prevent another nationwide housing crisis.

With a career that so far includes a successful theater lighting business he cofounded with his younger brother and a quarter-century as a scientist at Fermilab, he feels ready to help build bridges across the partisan aisle.

In a politically divided environment, “fact-based debate” is especially important, he said, and having a business mind set accustomed to compromise and an awareness of who the customer is also will help.

Foster finds appeal in the occasional idea, now under discussion anew, of increasing House terms from two years to four.

“It’s obvious in the behavior of Congress when an election’s coming that not much gets done,” he said. “Congress is very ineffective in what used to be the four months before the election, and now seems to be the 18 months before.”

As for the lame-duck chambers that eked out a deal just before midnight Tuesday, preserving for most U.S. workers the income tax cuts enacted during the first term of President George W. Bush but delaying decisions on spending cuts, Foster saw the glass half-full.

“It was nice to see a little glimmer of bipartisan cooperation,” he said. “It’s good to have legislation that takes the 51 percent out of the center.”

Having already settled into a one-room apartment on New Jersey Avenue SE — about a 10-minute walk from his new office but “on the wrong side of the expressway” — the Congressman is already looking forward to getting home to Naperville on weekends and as often as his schedule allows.

“It’s a wonderful, diverse and intellectually active area,” he said.

He and his wife, Aesook Byon, have lived in the city for about a year and a half, which is long enough for Foster to know there are 42 restaurants within walking distance of their home.

He said he’s been in politics long enough to demur when asked to name his favorites.