Rep. Karen May ‘sprints’ to finish
State Rep. Karen May received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois Environmental Council for her leadership on environmental issues during her 12-year tenure, which ended Tuesday. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media.
Updated: May 23, 2013 4:55PM
There’s a lot Karen May will miss about her years as a state legislator.
Other things? Not so much.
Like cutting short a family vacation to return to Springfield, only to learn the session has been pushed off for several days.
Or being out in a restaurant with friends when someone spots her and can’t resist the chance to get something off their chest.
Annoyances aside, May has felt like a rock star in the home stretch of her six terms in office, as constituents and advocates have showered her with gratitude for her efforts on their behalf.
“A lot of it is just not being afraid to open your mouth and stand up for what is right,” said May, expressing heartfelt gratitude to the people of her 58th District who entrusted her to be their voice in the legislature.
In September, May received the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois Environmental Council for her tenacity in pushing issues from wetland protection to clean air.
“My real legacy in Springfield is organizing an environmental caucus,” said May, of the bipartisan caucus of legislators from both chambers that works with advocates on environmental issues.
May, who chaired the Illinois House Committee on Environmental Health, became a legislative leader on environmental causes early on when her mentor, Andrea Moore, left the legislature in 2002 for a post in the Department of Natural Resources. “I saw this huge void,” said May, noting it’s not considered good form to take over an issue that another lawmaker has been working on for some time.
She’s particularly proud of her work to get mercury out of consumer products, and believes action by Illinois and other state legislatures spurred change on the national level.
She’s also proud of her fight for changes in hospital billing practices so that uninsured patients — billed at full sticker price — were able to obtain lower pricing. “When the attorney general got involved, we were really able to negotiate a bill,” said May, who found it egregious that the most financially vulnerable individuals were paying the highest rates.
“Maybe people in this area who are college-educated would know they can go in and negotiate. But a new immigrant or someone who is not fluent in English wouldn’t know that,” she said.
May didn’t have a grand plan to become a politician or legislator when she graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana with a degree in communications. She can’t recall ever taking a political science course.
She became interested in public policy through work with the local League of Women Voters. May worked as a feature writer for Pioneer Press’ Highland Park News in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before launching her own public relations agency.
She was serving on the Highland Park City Council in 2000 when an Illinois House seat opened up and she was urged to run. For most of her years in office, her district has included all or portions of Bannockburn, Deerfield, Glencoe, Highland Park, Highwood, Lake Bluff, Lake Forest, Northbrook and Riverwoods.
“I’ve lived my life by ‘Karen-dippity’,” said May, of her tendency to go with the flow and seize opportunities that present themselves.
When State Sen. Susan Garrett announced in late 2011 that she wouldn’t be running for reelection, May was seen as a likely contender for the seat. But she quashed speculation and soon announced her own plans to leave the legislature after the 2012 election.
“When I announced that I wasn’t running again, I promised to sprint across the finish line, because I felt that was my style,” said May, 68, who put herself on the House Personnel and Pension Committee and was still working for a reform package in the final days of her tenure.
“One of the reasons I decided not to run again was that I could really do the right thing without being beholden to the money sources,” said May, acknowledging that it will be a disappointment if the legislature adjourns Tuesday without enacting significant reforms.
Known for responsiveness to constituents, May said people in her district have given her good ideas for small bills, and helped her understand how government was working, or not working, for them. She recalled a mother who complained about repeatedly filing paperwork requiring the time of health care providers for a permanently disabled child whose condition was not going to change.
She’s effusively grateful to her own staff members, who fielded phone calls and e-mails and developed a system for informing letter-writers of the outcome on their particular issue when it became known.
“My staff’s job for me was to try to bust through the bureaucracy and try to make government work for people,” she said. “As a single legislator, there is only so much you can accomplish. But you can make government work for people.”
Scott Drury of Highwood was set to be sworn in Wednesday as the representative of the newly-drawn 58th District that extends farther west and north into Lincolnshire and North Chicago.