Don Manzullo: Keeping the Faith, Fighting the Good Fight

For 20 years, Rockford’s Congressman used collaboration and compassion to fight for middle America. His memoir shows how it happened.

The title of Don Manzullo’s autobiography says it all.

His memoir, “Do Nice Guys Run for Congress: How an Obscure Country Lawyer Kept his Faith, Beat the Establishment, and Survived Twenty Years in Congress,” describes Manzullo’s extraordinary journey from a law office in Oregon, Ill., to the House of Representatives and the setbacks and successes he experienced while representing the 16th District of Illinois. Through it all, Manzullo earned a reputation as a determined and detail-oriented worker who didn’t let party affiliation get in the way of getting things done.

The book, however, does more than tell Manzullo’s story. His tale is full of moments where his work in Congress made a significant difference in the way Americans, in his constituency and beyond, did business. Manufacturers and business owners should always be cognizant of the ways their political representatives can stand in their corner and can assist, or intervene, at the federal level. The book makes it clear that, when something comes up, you should call your members of Congress.

“I was an attorney for 22 years and people would call me about how they were being screwed by the federal government,” Manzullo says. “Then, I was in a position where I could do something about it. I loved it.”

One of Manzullo’s top priorities was protecting small businesses from wide, sweeping policies that harmed the businesses they were supposed to help. There were many instances in his career where well-intentioned laws threatened less-than-stellar or unintended results.

“This happens in Congress on a continuous basis,” he says. “Congress passes laws, and the President signs them without doing the research about the impact.”

This was the situation during Manzullo’s freshman year in Congress, in 1990, when he heard from the founders of Sage Products, in Cary, Ill.

The medical equipment manufacturer, located at the east end of Manzullo’s district, was one of many companies being sideswiped by the Employee Commute Option (ECO), an amendment to the Clean Air Act. McHenry County’s proximity to Chicago put its air quality in the ECO’s crosshairs, and organizations with more than 100 employees were expected to establish carpooling or public transit programs for 25% of their workforce – or pay heavy fines. The mandate put McHenry County, where the population is spread far and wide, between a rock and a hard place.

In his first week in Congress, Manzullo found himself taking on the juggernaut that was the Clean Air Act. In a moment that could have been torn from a Jimmy Stewart script, his first move was to reach out to a seasoned political opponent: Henry Waxman, a powerful Democrat representative from California who was a highly unlikely ally.

“He represented Hollywood, and I was a rookie who represented corn, beans and blue- and white-collar workers,” says Manzullo.

When Manzullo told his staff about his newfound ally, he was met with astonishment and doubt.
“They said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! He’ll never move,’” Manzullo recalls.

He moved forward anyway and found his lack of experience also meant a lack of agenda.

“It was kind of good not to know things,” he says. “You approach it with common sense as opposed to some sort of political ploy.”

Manzullo and Waxman’s work eventually resulted in a change of legislation that gave states the flexibility to reach Clean Air Act standards without breaking the bank.

“The two of us, this very conservative freshman Republican and this very liberal Democrat, co-sponsored a bill,” marvels Manzullo. “And we managed to do it without compromising the Clean Air Act.”

Manzullo’s autobiography also illuminates another tool that local businesses have in their belt: the lobbyist. Manzullo points out that lobbyists are not the black-hat-wearing, mustache-twirling villains our media landscape portrays them to be. Most lobbyists, like Manzullo, are there to serve their community and to give voice to the industry they represent.

“Lobbyists are there because they represent people who work in their district,” says Manzullo. “They are non-partisan, and they have the extraordinary expertise in their field that lets them get things done in Congress.”

More importantly, lobbyists are a barometer that business owners can use to understand what is going on, politically, in their industry and how to react to any clouds on the horizon.

Manzullo recalls a time when a manufacturing lobbyist alerted him to a situation that, if not addressed, would wreak havoc with the nation’s aerospace industry. Because he was from Rockford, where there are more than 250 aerospace-related suppliers, Manzullo knew he had to act. What followed was a delicate tightrope walk between the State Department and the Department of Commerce, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as his balancing pole.

“Traditionally, if an aerospace manufacturer made a part that was FAA certified, it was considered to be in common use and did not require a license to export it,” Manzullo explains.

These parts, known as dual use parts, were the purview of the Department of Commerce and not subject to State Department laws that regulate the export of military aircraft parts. As Manzullo explains, the legal turbulence that led to his involvement happened in 2001.

“There was a blip,” he says.

The blip was the expiration of the Department of Commerce Regulations, which led to the State Department taking over. Suddenly those dual use parts were subject to the same regulations as military parts. By the time Manzullo stepped in, an estimated 70% of exported components were being held up, a situation that could have crippled the American aerospace industry and driven buyers to foreign markets.

“That had an immense impact on Rockford,” he says.

Manzullo got to work.

“I built a nationwide group of U.S. aerospace manufacturers, including several in Rockford,” he says. “We worked on changing the regulation to reflect what it used to mean. That is, if you manufactured something that is FAA-certified, you can sell it through the Export Administration Act, which is controlled by the Department of Commerce.

He also sent a letter to President George W. Bush, co-signed by 28 bipartisan members of Congress, to convince him to restore the Department of Commerce as the regulator of commercial aviation components. And, he drafted a clarifying regulation to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to prevent this particular blip from happening again.

The end result was an increase in export sales that totaled billions of dollars for the aerospace industry. For Manzullo, it’s an example of his ability to roll up his sleeves and do meaningful work in a sector where political zeal sat firmly in the back seat.

“I had a reputation for being a go-to person in manufacturing,” says Manzullo. “It was a field of my own, and a field where there was zero politics. Every member of Congress has the same interest. They want to keep the jobs in their district.”

People enter politics for a myriad of reasons. For Manzullo, it was because it was a natural extension of his servant’s heart, something he describes in his book as “the cornerstone of a true public servant.”

No matter the reason, Manzullo points out that an unconventional background offers a unique perspective that can literally change the country.

“What’s great about America is that totally obscure people can be elected,” he says. That’s what happened to me. That’s why I wrote the book.”