Peter Fitzgerald's Different Drummer

The senator is hardly what archconservatives expected

When Enron Corp. sent 41 boxes of internal documents up to Capitol Hill in January, dozens of staffers were assigned to comb through the records for newsworthy nuggets. Among the crew was a 41-year-old self-described numbers geek--but Peter Fitzgerald is hardly your average congressional gofer. He is the nation's youngest senator.

The freshman Republican from Illinois, eager to understand Enron's collapse, worked seven days a week sifting through thousands of pages of board minutes and partnership papers. His conclusion: Enron's balance sheet was simply a scam. "I quickly became convinced that there was no economic purpose for the partnerships other than to fictitiously pump up earnings," Fitzgerald says.

His pointed comments about Enron execs at February's Senate Commerce Committee hearings--he called ex-CEO Kenneth L. Lay "perhaps the most accomplished confidence man since Charles Ponzi"--made him a media darling. But it's his background as a banking lawyer that has made him an important player in the post-Enron reform movement.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan law school, Fitzgerald is a numbers-cruncher who peppers his statements with such statistics as the airlines' average daily revenues prior to September 11 ($340 million) or the share of Enron's earnings arising from fictitious transactions with its Raptor partnerships (72%).

When he first came to Washington, after defeating incumbent Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun in 1998, Fitzgerald was expected to march in lockstep with the Far Right. But in his short Senate career, Fitzgerald has earned a reputation as a hard-working pragmatist and a reform-minded maverick. Sure, on core Republican issues such as abortion, tax cuts, and limited government, he votes with the GOP. But on issues such as a patients' bill of rights, gun control, and the environment, Fitzgerald often sides with Democrats. And that has ticked off GOP loyalists, from the White House to the movement conservatives who helped him get elected. Notes one conservative activist: "He's not the [favorite] of the Republican cocktail circuit in Washington."

Indeed, from his first days in the Senate, Fitzgerald has exhibited his independence. He shocked GOP leaders when he supplied the pivotal vote for a 1999 gun-control bill, letting then-Vice-President Al Gore break a 50-50 tie (table). Yet never was Fitzgerald's maverick streak more evident than in the $15 billion bailout of the airlines after September 11. He was the only senator to vote against it. "That number was pulled out of thin air, and it had no relation to the losses [the airlines] incurred by virtue of the government shutdown," he insists.

Fitzgerald is not just a quixotic naysayer, though. Before the final vote, he worked with Senator Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) to add a provision ensuring that taxpayers get a share of any airline profits generated by the bailout. Says ex-Wall Streeter Corzine: "These are disciplines that people who have lived in the business world expect."

Using his cross-party ties, Fitzgerald is pushing his top priority: post-Enron reform. He's teaming up with Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on a proposal to force companies to count the cost of stock options against earnings. He has also introduced a bill requiring Wall Street analysts to disclose business ties their firms have with the companies they rate.

Fitzgerald's knowledge of finance runs deep. He is the youngest of five children of an Illinois family that owned Suburban Bancorp, where Peter was general counsel in the early 1990s. In 1994, Suburban was bought by Bank of Montreal for $246 million--leaving him flush for a Senate run. After winning the election--he spent $13 million of his own funds, says the Center for Responsive Politics--Fitzgerald refused to sell his bank stock, including $25 million to $50 million in Bank of Montreal holdings. Instead, he recuses himself on banking issues. Selling "wouldn't have solved any problems because my family members all hold the same stock," he says.

In the coming weeks, Fitzgerald may vote against his party once again, this time on the hot-button issue of opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. The ANWR vote is expected to be close, and GOP leaders are working to change the minds of mavericks such as Fitzgerald. At this point, however, leaders won't criticize him publicly. "People in some parts of the country have different views than those of us in the South who live with oil and gas rigs every day," shrugs Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Fitzgerald, the first Illinois GOP senator in 20 years, is cut some slack because he's from a swing state that backed Democrats in the past three Presidential elections. That has shielded him from public criticism by Administration officials, but they don't hesitate to chide him in private. "This White House places a premium on loyalty, but when you're a senator from a swing state, the definition of loyalty is a little different," says Jennifer Duffy, chief Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Many Capitol insiders expect Fitzgerald to eventually replace McCain as the leader of GOP reformers. And McCain seems to agree. Fitzgerald, he says, is "a refreshingly independent-minded young man that I view as the coming generation of reformers." That's a far cry from the right-wing ideologue Washington expected.

By Laura Cohn in Washington

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