An Interview with Ricca Slone

Ricca Slone was inaugurated in the Illinois General Assembly as state representative for the 92nd district in January 1997. She is an attorney, concentrating on environmental compliance and real estate transactions for small business.

Slone is a 1990 graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law and holds a bachelor’s degree from Washington University, St. Louis; a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles; and a master’s degree in public administration from Ohio State University.

Slone has advised small business clients on transactions of industrial property, zoning appeals, and underground storage tank remediation issues, among others. She has represented citizen groups opposing the citing of waste incinerators in two downstate communities and has served on the Peoria City-County Landfill Committee.

She served on the staff of the Ohio Department of Economic & Community Development, then worked as a senior research analyst for the Ohio Legislative Service Commission.

Slone moved to Washington, D.C. to work on a study for the Office of Policy Development & Research, U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. During the Reagan administration, she served on the staff of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

She was a 1994-95 chairman of the Illinois State Bar Association Environmental Law Section Council and was planning chairman of the “Law & the Great Lakes: Into the 21st Century” conference in 1992. She’s a member of the American Bar Association, Section on Natural Resources, Energy & Environmental Law, and is coauthor of the 1994 Environmental Law Updates in the Southern Illinois University Law Journal.

Slone is married to Dr. William Berkman. They have three sons: Zachary, 11, Sydney, 9, and Seth, 7.

Tell us where you were born and a little bit about your childhood. 

I was born in Ottawa, Ontario, where my mother was raised. My parents moved there after World War II and my dad went to work for my mom’s family’s business. When I was 2, my dad’s brother in Chicago asked him to move back and go into the auto parts business with him.

My sister and brother were born in Chicago, and that’s where we grew up. We attended our neighborhood grade school and public high school. My sister and I were Brownies and Girl Scouts, and my dad and brother were in Indian Guides. We went to summer camp in northern Wisconsin.

We used to take family outings along the lakefront to the Loop and up into the northern suburbs to admire the homes. Both my parents were architecture buffs, and would point out buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. My dad used to tell us that the Wrigley Building was built when he was a boy by hundreds of men chewing Wrigley’s gum and plastering it into the walls. My boys now believe that’s how it got its pale gray color.

What field of medicine is your husband in? How did you meet him? 

My husband Bill is an interventional radiologist at Methodist Medical Center. We met through my cousin Sandra and her parents, who were Bill’s family’s neighbors and close friends. Bill was moving back to the Midwest from Baltimore to take a job in Peoria, and I had moved back to Chicago the previous year from Washington, D.C.

You have a master’s degree from UCLA in anthropology. Was that a career direction you were headed for? What, then, led you to get a master’s degree in public administration?

I majored in sociology and anthropology because they were intellectually fascinating and the faculty were terrific teachers. I didn’t have any career path in mind.

When I was accepted to UCLA for graduate school, I had a rude awakening. Grad students were expected to do unpaid work washing skulls in the archaeology lab and acting as teaching assistants, and then do field work, preferably on some South Pacific island where the senior faculty had done their research.

I was already homesick (my boyfriend was at Ann Arbor), and I didn’t want to go farther west. Also, at that time anthropology was considered a strictly academic career – something that is not the case today – and my first glimpses of academic politics did not give me a desire to pursue academics. The administration wanted all graduate students to be on a Ph.D. track. I had to argue with them to be awarded a master’s degree, even though I had completed enough credits and done a master’s thesis.

I was glad to return to the Midwest and my first “real” job at the Ohio Department of Economic and Community Development in Columbus. I worked in a small office of program evaluation; its purpose was to review the agency’s programs and report to the director whether they were being run effectively and efficiently. The staff was young and enthusiastic; well educated but naïve. We did some very good research, but of course the agency staff whose programs we were reviewing did not always appreciate our well-meaning efforts to improve the job they were doing for the taxpayers.

At that time, Ohio State University offered a master’s degree in public administration, which could be completed in the evenings and weekends, and was similar to an executive MBA program. When I was partway through the program, there was a gubernatorial election and our governor lost. Everyone in my office was fired immediately. It was a quite a while later, after I returned to state government employment, that I was finally able to complete the master’s degree program. 

When did you earn your law degree at the University of Illinois College of Law? What finally attracted you to study the legal field?

When we moved to Peoria in 1985, times were hard and jobs were scarce. After we had been in Peoria a few years, it seemed as if the skills and academic training I already had were not going to be easy to put to good use here.

I took the law school admission test on a lark and scored well. So I applied and got into the University of Illinois College of Law in 1987, when our oldest son was 2. By the time I finished, in 1990, we had two “law school babies.” The faculty, staff and my fellow students were tremendously supportive and really helped our family get through law school. 

Can you give us an overview of your job positions before you came to Peoria? How did you happen to settle here?

After I lost my first job in Ohio I was lucky enough to land a job at the Ohio Legislative Service commission, a staff agency to the General Assembly. It was a great introduction to the legislative process. The office was very professional and nonpartisan. We prepared bill drafts and bill analyses, and also staffed committees. I staffed a select committee that updated the state retirement systems, and later the Senate Education & Health Committee.

I also had the opportunity to work during non-session times on legislative oversight projects requested by members of the General Assembly, similar to work we had been doing at the development department. Other staff worked with me. One of our reports on vocational education won an award from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

After four years I had an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. on an intergovernmental exchange program between state and federal agencies. I worked for two years at the Department of Housing & Urban Development in the research and evaluation section, and then at the Office of Management & Budget on the Reagan block grants and their effects on state government budgets.

After that I went out on my own as a consultant and free-lance writer. That was a very bad timing. It was 1982, there was a deep recession, and I nearly starved. Finally I got a contract with a consulting firm to run a study for them. That lasted six months and was well paid, so when I finished the job I had an opportunity to do some traveling and think about my future.

I decided I had enough of Washington and in late 1983 I moved back to Chicago where I found a job on the staff of one of the aldermen. I was also ghostwriting a book on financial planning for a prominent stockbroker. After I moved back to Chicago, I met my husband and ended up in Peoria. 

How did you juggle your family, your legal practice, and campaigning while you were running for office?

We had a mother’s helper or nanny in the house to take care of the boys while I was in law school, and we continued to have someone to help while I was getting my practice started until the boys were in school full time.

Campaigning has been a family activity for us. My husband is a great campaigner. He particularly enjoys putting up yard signs. The boys like to go out and meet voters at events and door-to-door. In fact, this year when I did not have a primary opponent, my youngest son Seth wanted to go with me to help a colleague in the Chicago suburbs who had a difficult primary because Seth missed campaigning. 

How do you divide your time now between your practice, your Peoria district office and your Springfield office?

Since I was elected, I have been cutting back on my practice to accommodate my obligations as a legislator. Like any new job, it takes time to learn. Generally we begin the session in January and adjourn for the summer after passing the budget. We also have a veto session in the fall, after the governor has had his constitutional opportunity to sign or veto the bills we pass.

Being in the General Assembly is almost like having two jobs. In between sessions in Springfield, I try to spend as much time in my district office as possible. My staff works on constituent requests and scheduling, and I am invited to many events and speaking engagements. All these are important because they help me keep touch with people in my district. 

You’ve been an Illinois state representative for a year now. How has that office differed from what you expected?

Probably the greatest surprise is how many people and groups seek help or changes from the General Assembly. The variety and scope of issues you are expected to master is quite overwhelming. You can’t be an expert on every issue, so you often have to rely on the expertise and good faith of others in deciding how to vote. A key aspect of that process is learning whose word you can trust, both among your colleagues and among the many lobbyists you meet.

What was your biggest challenge as a state representative during 1997? 

At first the biggest challenge was finding a place to hang up my coat or make a phone call. The freshmen didn’t have secretaries or offices or phones for the first month. That sure cuts you down to size after being so proud of being elected!

Some of the formalities observed on the House floor can be confusing for a beginner. I accidentally missed my first vote on a bill, even though I was at my desk, because a staffer was talking to me and I didn’t know the significance of the bell ringing for a vote. That was embarrassing.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is in working a bill that is important to the legislative agenda in your district. You can’t accomplish anything in the House unless you can get at least 60 people to agree with you, so you really have to work your bills and show good faith in the other legislators.

What are some of the issues facing the Illinois House during 1998? 

We have a number of important public issues that urgently need attention from the General Assembly. Among them are educational standards and true school funding reform, property tax relief, cost of living increases for workers who provide care to the elderly and disabled, and protecting our air and water quality through better regulation of huge livestock facilities and other measures.

This summer I will co-chair a legislative task force on land use issues. We will be looking at how we can preserve prime farmland and open space in Illinois and protect it from overdevelopment through smarter growth policies.

On these and many other issues such as utility deregulation, economic development and large-scale livestock facility regulations, it has really been a pleasure to work closely with the legislative delegation from the Peoria region. I am fortunate to have been welcomed by my legislative colleagues, and to be a part of the bipartisan cooperation that works so well for our community and gives us greater leverage in the General Assembly.

Your term will expire in January 1999. What are your future plans in the political arena? 

As you can tell from my description of my early days in Springfield, freshmen don’t get much respect. It takes a while to learn the ropes, develop credibility with other members and become an effective advocate for your constituents. I hope the voters will give me the opportunity to continue learning how to represent them well. 

What, if any, political aspirations have your sons expressed?

Well, of course, they all want to be president, but they also want to be astronauts, musicians, Olympic athletes and firefighters, depending on what day it is. They have had a tremendous practical lesson in civics that not many children get to experience, by being a part of my campaign. I just hope they will be happy and productive at whatever they choose to do as adults.

In your law practice, what made you decide to concentrate on environmental compliance and real estate transactions for small businesses? 

One of my favorite courses in law school was environmental law. The more I studied, the more I thought that this was a practice area that would be interesting and challenging, as well as one that could help me leave a little bit better world for my sons to grow up in.

Can you give us examples of the types of cases you’ve been involved with? 

I worked with another attorney representing citizen groups in two appeals from decisions of local city councils to build trash incinerators in downstate Illinois. I helped the Sierra Club write their brief to try to prevent the Eastport Marina project from being built over the last remaining wetland on the Peoria Lakes.

A family in Adams County came to me for legal help after they were exposed to pesticide drift and experienced medical problems. I am also still representing a group of plaintiffs in Tazewell County in completing their settlement with a milling plant that is frequently out of compliance with its air quality permits.

As an attorney you tackle issues like underground storage tank remediation, industrial dust, and waste incinerators. How unusual is it in the legal field for a woman to be knowledgeable about these subjects?

Environmental law, perhaps because it is a relatively new field, seems to have an exceptionally high proportion of knowledgeable and competent women attorneys. However, most of them represent corporations or the government rather than plaintiffs or citizen groups.

How would you encourage a woman to enter the political arena? 

The political arena is fascinating, but also very frustrating. A young woman who is interested should try a legislative internship, summer job or graduate school placement to see if she finds it appealing.

Another avenue is to become involved in the campaign of a candidate whose ideas you like. Campaigns are always short of staff, and there is no better opportunity to get a taste of politics.

A lot of people are turned off by what they find, but others get hooked for life. And with all its flaws, partisan politics really is the basis of our democracy, and public service is truly a calling that can be significant and rewarding.

What, if any, gender related issues have you been confronted with as an attorney? As a politician? 

I have been gratified to see how closely the women in the House work together on issues without regard to party affiliation. For example, when the state was planning its welfare reform effort, the women legislators met with the secretary of human services. We were the first to raise questions about how welfare mothers were supposed to find and keep jobs if the state did not provide more funding for day care and transportation.

We also worked together to keep state funds flowing for Medicaid and food stamps for elderly legal immigrants who were cut off from federal assistance under the welfare reform package.

Also, Speaker Madigan selected Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago as majority leader of the House. She is the first woman to hold the position.

What are some of the highlights of your life so far? Personally? As an attorney? As a state representative?

We had some great family vacations with our travel trailer, the “Togethernest,” when we were growing up. I also have fond memories of my summers at camp in the north woods of Wisconsin, at the same camp our eldest son attended for the first time last summer. Certainly our wedding day and the births of each of our children were thrilling days for our family.

Graduating from law school was a proud moment and a great day. Our youngest son was only three days old, and we had to beg my doctor to let us out of the hospital so I could attend the ceremony. I remember having a real sense of excitement and vindication when I read the appeals court opinion supporting the citizen group and overturning the siting of a garbage incinerator in Havana.

We have had a few evenings more thrilling than the primary election night in 1996, when months of hard work by many people – especially my husband and a small group of close friends – led to an upset victory. Being sworn in as a member of the General Assembly with the beautiful House chamber filled with family, friends and flowers was a high point, too. And, of course, having the governor sign my first bill, creating the Illinois River Coordinating Council, was a significant moment in my legislative career. TPW