Rickey Hendon is an unabashed cheerleader for bringing home the political pork. One need only visit his West Side office to see that.
His community meeting room is decorated from floor to ceiling with massive copies of state checks. They represent the millions of dollars in grants Hendon has secured for churches, businesses and community groups in his district.
"My job is to legislate and appropriate," he said, "and I am going to appropriate all I can."
A 16-year veteran of the Illinois Senate, Hendon, 55, has cultivated a reputation as a political street fighter with a bravado unmatched in the Statehouse. He's known for his outrageous comments—he once asked a lawmaker on the Senate floor whether she was a "true blond" and told another he should be recalled for being a "Hillary delegate with a bad hairdo."
Hendon thrives on confrontation and grandstanding. An aspiring musician and filmmaker with a flair for getting on TV, Hendon has earned the nickname "Hollywood," a moniker he wears proudly.
During one of his recent weekly community meetings, Hendon paced in front of a standing-room-only crowd and boasted about his ability to secure state funds.
"We got the crumbs off the table for a long time, but it ain't that way no more," he said, his preacher-like cadence launching people out of their seats into wild applause.
Hendon pointed out that former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.)—who later went to federal prison for mail fraud—earned praise for "bringing home the money" when he was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "Well, I'm the West Side chairman of the Ways and Means Committee," Hendon said.
His grant-awarding prowess, however, has drawn scrutiny at least three times.
Two years ago, the state demanded partial repayment of a $275,000 grant awarded, at Hendon's request, to a non-profit that promised job training for homeless men. The state said the group improperly gave nearly half the grant to a board member, who couldn't document how he spent the money. That board member had close ties to Hendon.
In 2002, the Illinois attorney general's office sued a woman, alleging she misspent the $175,000 state grant she was supposed to use for a job-training program for low-income mothers. A Cook County judge ordered her to pay back the grant, a portion of which Hendon helped her secure.
In 1998, the state demanded a West Side redevelopment group return nearly half of the $500,000 grant Hendon helped arrange. The senator had asked the company to subcontract part of the work to another redevelopment firm where his then-wife served as executive director, records show.
Hendon argued in an interview that while other lawmakers earmark grants for large, well-established groups, he tries to spread the money to smaller, unproven companies.
"These people deserve a chance to fail," he said.