He shocked Democrats by defeating longtime state Sen. Pat Welch and then voted to kick disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich out of office. Now, Gary Dahl has died.
Dahl, 82, of Peru, but a Granville resident at the time he represented the Illinois Valley area, died Sunday. Dahl served in the Illinois Senate from 2004 until 2010 and, as a junior Republican in a Democratically-controlled Senate, had a relatively short list of legislative accomplishments.
But Dahl’s 1 1/2 terms were anything but uneventful. Blagojevich made international headlines for trying to sell Barack Obama’s recently-vacated seat in the U.S. Senate, prompting Dahl and other lawmakers to oust him. Dahl also broke ranks with the GOP to pass medical cannabis legislation out of committee for the first time in state history.
He was the epitome of what it means to be a public servant.”— State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, Dahl's successor
“Gary Dahl was a champion for the people of the Illinois Valley region,” said state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris. “When I was appointed to replace Gary in the Illinois Senate, I knew that I had large shoes to fill.
“He was the epitome of what it means to be a public servant. But, more importantly, Gary was a kind, giving and wonderful man. He was always looking for a way to give back to the community that he loved so much.”
Dahl was approaching retirement age when area Republicans asked him to join a search committee to recruit a challenger for longtime state Sen. Patrick Welch (D-Peru). Welch had won eight mostly close races – he once retained his seat with a 400-vote margin of victory – and was deemed vulnerable headed into the 2004 election.
Dahl said later he was hoodwinked – the committee had already targeted him to challenge Welch – but he was game for the challenge. He also had strong name recognition thanks to his businesses, Double D Express and Double D Warehouse, as well as his charitable giving.
Despite nursing a sore Achilles tendon that hobbled him on the campaign trail, the low-key Dahl connected with voters and prevailed with 51.4% of the vote. Welch would later compute $2 million spent by both parties, a five-fold increase over past races, in the 2004 campaign, most of it spent in the closing weeks.
However much Dahl had enjoyed the campaign trail, he openly complained of frustration once seated in the Senate. Early in his first term, he expressed disappointment at being unable to push through any meaningful legislation.
“(It’s) also been frustrating watching the lack of organization,” he said in 2005. “It seems like the right hand doesn’t have a clue what the left hand is doing, and vice-versa.”
Tom Templeton, former La Salle County sheriff and a fellow Republican, recalled that Dahl was sensitive to the needs of his constituents and was, professionally and personally, always generous to the less fortunate.
“Gary’s character and integrity will always be the standard that we should strive for,” Templeton said.
One of Dahl’s counterparts in the House remembered Dahl earning respect from colleagues as well as constituents.
Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino, a longtime state representative, had tabbed Dahl to serve on his, Mautino’s, first steering committee for state representative in 1992. They got along well then and, later, as fellow lawmakers.
“Gary was a powerful voice in the Senate,” Mautino said. “We worked together well. We shared projects for the district. He helped people from both parties, was a good man, and I will miss him.”
Any partisan differences were set aside when, in 2008, Blagojevich was hit with federal charges led by counts alleging he tried to auction off Obama’s former seat in the U.S. Senate.
“What little respect I had left for the man went out the window,” Dahl said of the indicted governor. “That’s pretty much a slap in the face to the 12.5 million people in the state of Illinois, that he would use that for his personal gain.
“I think it’s time for this guy to resign so that we can get on with the business of this state. We’ve got enough problems.”
Blagojevich did not resign, daring the Illinois General Assembly to oust him. The challenge did not go unanswered. Dahl joined a pair of 59-0 roll calls, one removing Blagojevich and one barring him from holding public office in Illinois ever again.
Months later, Dahl would again help pass a precedent-setting vote. In May 2009, a medical marijuana bill passed the Illinois Senate and Dahl broke ranks with Republicans to advance it.
Dahl said then there was strong support for medical marijuana among his constituents. He and his staff did extensive research and found enough scientific evidence to vote for the bill in good conscience.
“It’s time for us to put our prejudice behind us and give this an honest shot,” he said.
Though rumors abounded the frustrated Dahl would not seek reelection, Dahl did run for a second term in 2008 and defeated challenger Steve Stout of Utica. Stout praised Dahl for his “cordial” conduct on the campaign trail as well as for his accomplishments in the Senate.
“Sen. Dahl was a wonderful man,” Stout said. “He did many things for the community both openly and behind the scenes. He will be missed by all who ever met him.”
The last bombshell of Dahl’s career would be his abrupt retirement. In December 2010, days before his 70th birthday, Dahl announced that he was stepping down from office, leaving a two-year unexpired term that went to Rezin.
“I’m at a stage of my life where I’m thinking it’s time to spend more time with family and my business,” Dahl said. “After six years of serving in the state Senate (I was hoping) things would change down there but nothing has. I just feel it’s time to move on.”
Hurst Funeral Home, La Salle, is in charge of Dahl’s arrangements.