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A district guy’

NICOLE MICHELS | Friday, November 15, 2013


Editor’s Note: This is the eighth and final story in a series featuring Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s graduates serving as members of Congress. This series, titled, “Trading Golden Dome for Capitol Dome,” ran on Fridays.

Though he wanted to attend Notre Dame since he was eight years old, his high school guidance counselor told him he should not apply to the University because he would not be accepted. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-IN-1) said after this experience, he resolved to never again allow someone else’s opinion diminish his belief in himself.  

“It was, to this day – and I am 63 years old – the one time someone told me I can’t do something and I believed them,” Visclosky said. “It broke my heart, I went home and never applied. And my father, who is still alive at 97, just was furious. Because he said, ‘Let them tell you no, as opposed to some person who you have met once in your life.'”

‘You don’t quit’

Visclosky graduated with a B.S. in accounting from Indiana University Northwest, and then gained acceptance to Notre Dame as a law student. At Notre Dame, he was finally able to fulfill his boyhood dream.

“I was, at that time, your prototypical Catholic who went to his first Notre Dame football game when he was eight years old,” Visclosky said. “They played Purdue, it rained and they lost. I thought that was the only place you would ever go to college.”

His desire to study law manifested during his undergraduate career, Visclosky said.

“I didn’t decide on law school until midway through college,” Visclosky said. “Looking back on my life, if you talk to anybody I grew up with, the would have said it was preordained and that they couldn’t believe I didn’t think seriously about it until college.”

To this day, Visclosky said he is grateful for the education he received at Notre Dame. 

“I truly did enjoy every day there,” Visclosky said. “And I did appreciate what I think the University collectively stands for. … I think by the time I got out of law school, my feelings [about the University] were probably stronger than when I got in, and it felt like I got a great legal education.”

As a student at the University, Visclosky said he developed his will to fight to achieve his goals.

“I think part of [the legacy of Notre Dame] is not just the sense of service [instilled] at Notre dame, but again, part of it is – maybe I’m just stuck in that eight-year-old body, that if you are Notre Dame, you don’t lose,” Visclosky said. “Yeah, our football team’s lost for 20-some years, but in my mind if you are Notre Dame, whatever that is, … you’re persistent, you work hard, you got the best training and you don’t quit. 

“And somehow, you’re going to succeed.”

A career in public service

Though he applied to the Notre Dame Law School, Visclosky said his goal was not to practice law. His time in the seminary at age 15 helped to guide him toward a career in public service, Visclosky said.

“[At 15], I was in the seminary – I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world because it made me think about my life at a very young age, and really come to two conclusions,” Visclosky said. “One is, as far as the priesthood _ I didn’t want to make one decision and have that be the rest of my life. And secondly, I did decide because history was my favorite subject and I grew up in a political household … I just said, I would like a public service career … I would have to be a politician to be involved in public service. 

“The reason I went to Notre Dame is not to practice law, but hopefully to engage in a professional career.”

Visclosky said his goal was to work in the Organized Crime and Racketeering section [now the Organized Crime and Gang Section] at the Department of Justice. During an interview for a position within that section, he was told they only wanted to hire people with trial experience. 

His father advised him to approach then-state senator and lawyer Adam Benjamin, Visclosky said. After he spoke with Benjamin, who served in Indiana’s first Congressional seat from 1977 until his death in 1982, Visclosky said he was offered a position in Benjamin’s law firm. 

“He was a great lawyer … Adam to this day had one of the most facile and quick minds I have ever encountered,” Visclosky said. “He is shrewd … and he said he just launched an election for Congress … it was the right place at the right time … I walked in the door and he said, ‘When can you start?'”

The product of ‘a beer and a cheeseburger’

After joining Benjamin’s law firm, Visclosky said he worked on Congressional appropriations issues as a staff member for Benjamin. During his time with Benjamin in Washington, D.C., Visclosky said he decided to pursue his master of laws degree at Georgetown University. 

“We were down the block, having a beer and a cheeseburger,” Visclosky said. “I said, ‘What do you think, Adam, about me going back to school and getting a master of laws from Georgetown?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I think it’s a great idea – if you go back, I’ll go back.’ The primary motivation, the overwhelming motivation, was that they had turned me down and I wanted to prove that I could get a Georgetown degree. … And the other motivation is that I’ve always thought, that the more options you have in life, the better opportunities you have to live a full life and make a contribution. And, I’ve always had a respect for Georgetown as well, and believed that if I got that ticket punched it couldn’t hurt me.”

At Georgetown, he said he took both classes that interested him and benefited his professional work. 

“It was the one time I went to school and actually took classes that I wanted to take. Legal history – never had time at Notre Dame to do that,” Visclosky said. “But most of the classes were trade classes – back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, so much of what we did here was trade-based because of the domestic steel industry and its economic implosion. So, [my Georgetown education] also had great application to the work I was doing.”

He enjoyed his time at Georgetown for its educational and comic value, Visclosky said. 

“I also had to quip, because Georgetown has a huge alumni [contingent] up here as you can imagine … I tell them I was riddled with so much Catholic guilt, that I had to do Jesuits for a couple of years to beat it out of me,” Visclosky said. “They beat some of it out of me.”

‘30,000 bucks in the bank’

His second legal degree helped him when he first ran for Congress, Visclosky said.

“I had no name recognition, though my father’s name was known, and people make an assumption [when] they see a Notre Dame law degree and then they see a master’s in international law from Georgetown,” Visclosky said. “They said, ‘Oh, at least he has the intellectual firepower to do the job.’ Whether I did or did not, you have the appearance.”

Still, tragedy vaulted him into contention for Indiana’s first congressional seat when Benjamin died of a heart attack at age 47 in Sept. of 1982. 

“At the time, I didn’t have a job, I was unemployed because Mr. Benjamin died, was not married, had no family, didn’t have a mortgage payment to make and had 30,000 bucks in the bank,” Visclosky said. “At the time I thought it was a very faithful decision, a very gutsy decision, that I was laying my life on the line.  

“Looking back, all I had to lose was a bit of time and 30,000 bucks. And so I said, if I’m ever going to run, I gotta do it now.”

After he took office in 1985, Visclosky said he focused on connecting with his constituents.

“I do work hard at it, and I try my best, that’s all I can do is my best,” Visclosky said. “I do assiduously try to stay in touch with my constituents. I will tend on the Sundays that I’m home to go to Church services in various communities, if there’s pancake festivals before, that’s where I’m at, if there’re festivals, if there’re fundraisers in the evening, every service club that meets every labor organization … people bump into me at the grocery store and my favorite question is, ‘What are you doing?’ I say, ‘I like to eat.'”

Above all, Visclosky said he sees his duty and the duty of those in his office to be to serve his people. 

“I hate it when I go to a public facility and someone acts like they’re doing you a favor by waiting on you – get another job,” Visclosky said. “You are there to serve people. … It’s just hard work, doing your best, and being accessible.”

This dedication to service stems from his time at Notre Dame, Visclosky said. 

“If there’s a value that encompasses the work [we do] every day, it’s that you are supposed to leave the world better, and certainly you have that sense from your attendance at Notre Dame,” Visclosky said.

‘A district guy’

How exactly is he working to leave the world a better place? For Visclosky, it all comes down to increasing the number of jobs in his community.

“You gotta put people back to work,” Visclosky said. “You got to change the economy of Northwest Indiana. One of the great things about the job and the honor that I have is that you can do anything you want to. You see some people on the House floor every day, you see some people on the cover of ‘The New York Times’ every day, I’m a district guy.

“I owe the 710,000 people of Northwest Indiana – that’s my job. Those people are my job, no one else is going to look after them if I don’t. It’s the economy that drives everything else.”

Because of this goal, Visclosky said he focuses on promoting basic manufacturing at both the district and national level.  

“It translates well into national policy because I do think, unfortunately for your generation, and it is a sad commentary on my life in public service, we are leaving you worse off than my parents’ generation left me,” Visclosky said. 

He said he also works to promote the “good behavior of public officials” who are working to improve their communities, and to renew the lakeshore community to attract young people and create jobs for the region. 

The most lasting impact of Notre Dame on his life has been his devotion to service, Visclosky said.

“[The most significant effect of Notre Dame on my life today] is that sense of service,” Visclosky said. “I try not to be a prideful person but I am proud that I went to Notre Dame.”

Contact Nicole Michels at [email protected]