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Career Spotlight: Lt. Governor Sheila Simon (L'87) 

Georgetown Alumni
January 9, 2012

Describe your current position and what led you to your job:
I serve as lieutenant governor of Illinois. I got to this point through an unusual path: first as a legal aid attorney, then as a prosecutor, then as a law professor. But all along the way, I have been involved in politics and government, whether serving on the city council, helping other people campaign or working on the Illinois Reform Commission.

My constitutional mandate is to take over for the governor if s/he cannot perform her or his duties. This has happened most recently when former Governor Blagojevich made national news for attempting to sell President Obama's Senate seat. Then-lieutenant governor Pat Quinn succeeded Blagojevich. Quinn selected me as his running mate in the last election, thanks to my reformer roots.

Since the inauguration in January 2011, I've led the state's efforts on education and ethics reform. We're working hard to increase the proportion of our state's population with meaningful college degrees and certificates so that Illinois can attract the jobs and employers of the future. I'm also committed to making government more transparent and accountable to taxpayers, which is why I am working to give the public more access to financial information about candidates and officials and to limit the role that money plays in elections.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career?
I most enjoy being an advocate for those who are not always heard. That's rewarding whenever it happens, whether it's on a small scale, like representing a child in an adoption proceeding, or representing those who want an open and honest government. Our legal system and governmental system only work well when all voices are heard. It's great to be a part of making that happen.

What is the best career advice you have received?
Be honest. As a young lawyer, I hated to have to tell clients that I didn't know the answers to some of their questions. I always explained that I would do the research and find the answers. While this troubled me, it allowed my clients to see that I would be honest with them even when it made me look less than brilliant. It helped build trust for working on hard issues together.

The same advice applies in politics. I would love to be able to give everyone the answers they want to hear. The honest answers aren't easy, but in the end, people appreciate a straight assessment that allows them to be a part of building a solution. This lesson is reinforced for me all across the state. I meet people everywhere who worked with my father, Paul Simon, who was involved in Illinois politics for decades. People frequently tell me, "I didn't always agree with your dad, but I appreciated his honesty."

What would you recommend to someone interested in working in your field?
Volunteer for a campaign. It's the best way to gain experience and see if politics and public service are your passions.

What challenges have you faced and how did you successfully manage one situation?
Governing is all about addressing challenges. We made two huge strides in Illinois this year when we confronted inequities in our legal system. As a former prosecutor, I recommended that the governor abolish capital punishment because it tolerates errors in execution. I also supported the recognition of civil unions as a step toward marriage equality. We became the 16th state to ban the death penalty and the 10th state to allow same-sex civil unions or marriage.

An ongoing challenge we have in Illinois is making sure that students across the state have access to high-quality education while using our education dollars efficiently. I chair a commission that looks at these issues. I cannot guarantee our outcome, but I have been able to guarantee that we will hear from people across the state and that we will learn from that process. Our commission includes parents, teachers, administrators and many other stakeholders. If we are successful at improving school district efficiency and effectiveness, it will be because we have been inclusive throughout the process.

What skills are necessary or what prepared you the most for your career?
Knowing the law is invaluable, and I put the skills I learned at Georgetown to work every day. But being a teacher has allowed me to hone skills that might be even more valuable. I know how to break down a big concept into small, manageable parts. I also know how to engage people and connect them with me and what I am trying to teach. Finally, don't underestimate parenting skills—they're transferrable to the political arena. Anyone who can explain to their children the advantages of sharing has a big head start in the budgeting process!

What professional associations have aided in your professional development?
The Illinois Bar Association and the Jackson County Bar Association have been great help in terms of practical tools for me as a lawyer. Now I also work with the National Lieutenant Governors Association, a group that helps to build bridges across parties. As a teacher, I enjoyed being a part of the Legal Writing Institute, a group of legal writing teachers who collaborate on a national level to inspire better teaching and better legal writing at all levels.

Anything you would like to add?
Georgetown supplied me with great inspiration. Studying international human rights with the late Robert Drinan, S.J., is an experience I would not trade. On Friday afternoons, he had us leaving class ready to save the world.

And it surely doesn't count as a professional association, but I still stay in touch with the study group I was in at Georgetown Law. We got together for a reunion about a year ago, and outside of looking much older, we got along just like we did about 25 years ago. I thank Georgetown for the opportunity to get to know Pam Chen, Rebecca Bernstein, Karin Vogel, John Neimeyer and Joe LaBella.