Born on November 21, 1944 in East St. Louis, Illinois, Richard Durbin was raised in southern Illinois by parents who were active trade unionists. After earning a BS in foreign services and economics from Georgetown University in 1966 and a JD from Georgetown Law School in 1969, Durbin served as legal counsel for the Illinois Lieutenant Governor (1969-73) and the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee (1972-82), and as an associate professor at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (1978-83). He then held a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983-97, and has been a Democratic U.S. Senator representing Illinois since January 1997. His 1996 Senate campaign was supported by the longtime Chicago socialist Timuel Black and the Chicago chapter of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.
As a freshman member of the Senate Government Reform Committee in 1997, Durbin helped deflect the well-substantiated allegations that the Bill Clinton White House and the Democratic National Committee had received campaign contributions from Communist China to influence the ’96 elections. In 1998-99, Durbin was one of Mr. Clinton’s most ardent and effective defenders during the president’s impeachment proceedings.
In the aftermath of the Clinton administration, Durbin consistently provided vocal opposition to the presidency of George W. Bush. Notwithstanding the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2004 report blasting the CIA—and absolving the Bush White House of any blame—for its inaccurate pre-war judgments about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Durbin maintained that senior Bush administration officials “should have been more diligent in challenging the validity of analytical assumptions and the adequacy of intelligence collection and reporting.”
In 2004 Durbin took advantage of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal to capitalize politically, introducing legislation to reaffirm the U.S. ban on torture and grilling White House counsel Alberto Gonzales on the issue during the latter’s confirmation hearings to be Attorney General. Durbin accused Gonzales of having fabricated legal loopholes that (a) “narrowly redefined torture,” (b) “ignored the rule of law and the demands of human decency,” and (c) “created the permissive environment that made Abu Ghraib possible.”
Durbin also called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, where Islamic terrorists and enemy combatants were being held. In a June 14, 2005 speech on the Senate floor, Durbin read from an FBI report which claimed that detainees were sometimes held in rooms where the temperatures were either too cold or too hot, and where loud rap music was being played. He then said: “If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.”
Though Durbin’s remarks were subsequently exploited for propaganda purposes by anti-American organizations like Al-Jazeera and others, the senator initially refused to express remorse for his comments. On June 22, however, he issued a tearful apology from the Senate floor to anyone who might “believe that my remarks crossed the line.” “I’m sorry,” he stated, “if anything that I said caused any offense or pain …”
On September 18, 2008, Durbin participated in a closed-door meeting with then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who briefed Durbin and other congressional leaders on the gravity of the financial crisis that was beginning to hit the American economy. The next day, Durbin sold off $42,696 in mutual-fund shares; before the end of the month, he had sold off another $73,000 in shares. Then the stock market collapsed. By October 17, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had plunged by 22%. Critics characterized Durbin’s sell-off as an act of hypocrisy, since he had previously complained that people who engaged in insider trading generally did not face sufficiently severe criminal penalties.
Durbin again sparked controversy in during the July 2009 Senate confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama‘s nominee to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, a woman of Puerto Rican heritage. The senator told reporters that in confirmation hearings of previous years: “When we [Democrats] asked questions of the white male nominees of a Republican president, we were basically trying to … make sure that they would go far enough in understanding the plight of minorities, because clearly that was not in their DNA.”
In 2013 Durbin was a key member of the so-called “Gang of Eight”—four Democrat and four Republican U.S. senators—who tried to pass a sweeping, 844-page immigration-reform bill aimed at giving provisional legal status to at least 11 million illegal immigrants and placing them on a path-to-citizenship. The other Democrats on the panel were Charles Schumer, Robert Menendez, and Michael Bennet. A Politico.com analysis noted that their proposal, if passed, “would transform the nation’s political landscape” by “pumping as many as 11 million new Hispanic voters into the electorate a decade from now in ways that … would produce an electoral bonanza for Democrats and cripple Republican prospects in many states they now win easily.”
In October 2013, Durbin — rebutting a Republican claim that President Obama was not doing enough to communicate with GOP leaders regarding the government shutdown which was in progress at that time — said in a Facebook post that: (a) one House Republican leader had berated Obama during a recent meeting, and (b) that individual’s disrespect for Obama was emblematic of a widespread sentiment among Republicans. Wrote Durbin: “In a ‘negotiation’ meeting with the president, one GOP House Leader told the president: ‘I cannot even stand to look at you.’ What are the chances of an honest conversation with someone who has just said something so disrespectful?” Durbin’s claim seemed dubious from the outset, given the fact that Republican leaders had met with Obama only once during the shutdown, and that Durbin was not present on that occasion. In a subsequent daily briefing by the White House, press secretary Jay Carney stated: “I looked into this and spoke with somebody who was in that meeting and it did not happen.” House Speaker John Boehner’s office likewise denied Durbin’s charge. According to Politico.com, “Sen. Durbin’s office had no comment on the post and offered no further details.”
In October 2014 the Chicago Tribune reported that Durbin’s wife, Loretta, was an Illinois-based lobbyist whose clients had benefited from numerous federal earmarks and grants as a direct result of the senator’s intercession. The Tribune, for example, cited instances of “[Mrs. Durbin’s] firm getting a one-year contract with a housing nonprofit group around the time the senator went to bat for the organization and others like it; a state university receiving funds earmarked by [Senator] Durbin when his wife was its lobbyist; and [Senator] Durbin arranging federal money for a public health nonprofit when his wife was seeking state support for the same group.”
Also in October 2014, Durbin said that Voter ID laws “significantly suppress and discourage” many people—especially “elderly, disabled, minority, young, rural, and low income” Americans—“from exercising their constitutionally protected right to vote.” Moreover, he claimed that such laws are unnecessary because “voter impersonation fraud is virtually non-existent.”
On February 26, 2015, Durbin praised the “courage” that President Obama had recently demonstrated by issuing executive orders to prevent the deportation of millions of illegal immigrants. The senator likened Obama’s bravery to that which had once enabled Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as means of rectifying a “fatally flawed” U.S. Constitution. Durbin went on to criticize Republicans for obstinately standing in the way of racial progress. To view the senator’s extended remarks, click here.
In March 2015, Durbin blasted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not allowing a Senate confirmation vote on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch until a stalemate on abortion language in a human-trafficking bill could be resolved. Accusing the Republicans of racism, Durbin said: “Loretta Lynch, the first African-American woman nominated to be attorney general, is asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar.”1
In May 2015 Durbin was one of 14 Democratic senators who wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to “dramatically increase”—to at least 65,000—the number of refugees from war-torn Syria who would be resettled into American cities and towns. Additional signatories included Sherrod Brown, Chris Coons, Dianne Feinstein, Al Franken, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine, Amy Klobuchar, Patrick Leahy, Ed Markey, Robert Menendez, Patty Murray, Jeanne Shaheen, and Sheldon Whitehouse.
In July 2015 Durbin was an enthusiastic supporter of the nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated with Iran—an agreement allowing the Islamist regime in Tehran to enrich uranium, build advanced centrifuges, purchase ballistic missiles, fund terrorism, and have a near-zero breakout time to a nuclear bomb approximately a decade down the road. (For additional details about the accord, click here.)
On January 11, 2018, Durbin was present in a meeting where President Donald Trump negotiated immigration policy with Durbin, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. It was a meeting wherein Trump allegedly referred to a number of poverty-stricken, terrorism-infested nations as “shithole countries” and made a case for a merit-based immigration system rather than one based on “chain migration,” a policy that permitting newly naturalized citizens (including newly amnestied illegal aliens) to bring their extended family members to the United States. The next day, Durbin made the following statement to the press:
“In the course of his comments of said things which were hate-filled, vile and racist — he used those words. I understand how powerful they are. But I cannot believe that in the history of the White House, in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday…. He said these hate-filled things. And he said them repeatedly. When the question was raised about Haitians, for example, we have a group that have temporary protected status in the United States because they were the victims of crises and disasters and political upheaval. The largest group’s El Salvadorians. The second is Honduran and the third is Haitian.
“When I mentioned that fact to him, he said, ‘Haitians, do we need more Haitians?’ Then he went on and started to describe the immigration from Africa that was being protected in this bipartisan measure. That’s when he used these vile and vulgar comments, calling the nations they come from ‘shitholes,’ the exact word used by the president — not just once but repeatedly.
“That was the nature of this conversation. When it came to the issue of, quote, ‘chain migration,’ I said to the president, do you realize how painful that term is to so many people? African-Americans believe they migrated to America in chains and when you talk about chain migration, it hurts them personally.”
Notwithstanding Durbin’s professed objections to the term “chain migration,” he himself had used the term in the past. For example:
In February 2018, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois issued an order barring Durbin, a lifelong Catholic, from receiving Holy Communion because of the senator’s recent vote against The Pain-Capable Unborn Children’s Act, a bill that would have prohibited abortion procedures on fetusus more than 20 weeks old. Citing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ assertion that “failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice,” Paprocki stated: “Because his voting record in support of abortion over many years constitutes ‘obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin,’ the determination continues that Sen. Durbin is not to be admitted to Holy Communion until he repents of this sin. This provision is intended not to punish, but to bring about a change of heart.”
In April 2018, Durbin wrote a letter of complaint to David D. Smith, chairman of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, America’s largest television station operator with a reputation for frequently featuring conservative commentators on its programming. The source of Durbin’s outrage was the fact that Sinclair had recently aired an ad showing its various local anchors reading from a corporate script stating that “truth is neither politically ‘left or right’,” and criticizing national media for “using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think.”
“This most recent incident continues the troubling history of Sinclair dictating content to its stations, including mandating they run Sinclair-produced segments,” Durbin wrote. “This practice not only compromises the ability of local reporters to serve the unique interests of their viewers, but it undercuts the journalistic integrity of local news anchors who are required to deliver corporate-scripted messages, at times without providing a disclaimer of their source.”
Durbin added that when he and his staff had questioned Sinclair’s staff in November 2017 regarding its editorial policies, one of the company’s top officials had assured them that such scripted messages would not be aired. “Further troubling,” wrote Durbin, “is recent reporting that there are contractual penalties for Sinclair-owned stations and employees that refuse to run Sinclair-produced mandated content. Please confirm what Sinclair’s policy is regarding Sinclair-produced mandated content for local news anchors. Further, please clarify whether there will be employment consequences for personnel at local stations who refuse to deliver the scripted promotional message.”
During opening comments of a July 20, 2022 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “assault weapons,” Durbin claimed that there had been “309 mass shootings” in the United States since January 1 and then showed a video in which gun-control proponents repeatedly referred to guns as “weapons of war.” During the same hearing, Durbin condemned laws that allowed 18-year-olds to purchase AR-15s and asked, “Why are these killing machines flying off the shelves after they were banned for a decade, until 2004?” “Maybe it’s the ads that market the ‘assault weapons,’” the senator speculated. “Symbols of independence, freedom, or the promise that owning an AR-15-style-gun will make you more of a man. Or could it be the enticing prospect of totting around the same same style of weapon that soldiers and marines use to defend our country in combat? These are the marketing tactics used by gun manufacturers like Mossberg, Bushmaster, and Daniel Defense. It’s time to name and shame these companies.”
For an overview of Durbin’s voting record during his years as a legislator, click here.
For additional information on Dick Durbin, click here.
1 In response, black Republican Senator Tim Scott called Durbin’s comments “factually and patently false,” adding: “It is helpful to have a long memory and to remember that Durbin voted against Condoleezza Rice during the 40th anniversary of the March [on Selma]. So I think, in context, it’s just offensive that we have folks who are willing to race bait on such an important issue as human trafficking. Sometimes people use race as an issue that is hopefully going to motivate folks for their fight. But what it does, is it infuriates people.”