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After stroke, Sen. Kirk says ‘rehab works’

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Updated: June 5, 2013 6:12AM

Senator Mark Kirk struggled physically during his first venture out in public Friday visiting a charter school in North Chicago and he doesn’t speak as clearly as before, but he declared he has made progress thanks to rehabilitation.

Kirk, along with Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider visited the LEARN public charter school in North Chicago Friday, May 3, and all lamented the fact that the sequestration is cutting indiscriminately and they also said the charter school was important for keeping Naval Station Great Lakes open.

“This is something we worked on together,” Durbin said of the Department of Defense buying the building next to the base for the charter school.

“Here’s the challenge, with the events in Washington, we have to cut back defense spending and decide what bases to keep open or close,” he said, and one of the biggest issues is quality of life. “What do the families think about their life,” said Durbin. “Here in North Chicago, the city and school district, now run by the State of Illinois, are struggling.”

“We decided to to come together and move the North Chicago School District in the right direction (with the charter school),” Durbin said. With 160 students, one of three students comes from a family on the base and ultimately they hope to get up to 500 students enrolled in the school. “We want this to be a model school,” he said, “part of the re-birth of the North Chicago School District.”

Kirk was asked about his health. He was wheel-chaired into the school and used a cane to get to his seat for the press conference and when he went into a classroom. “I’ll say rehab works. If your mom or dad goes through a stroke, tell them to call me and I’ll get them up and turned around,” he said.

He noted that he usually walks a block each morning as part of his rehabilitation at his home in Lake Forest, and the one-block walk used to take 18 minutes. “Yesterday it took 8 minutes,” he said.

“With his voting records, there’s been some setbacks, but he’s getting better,” joked Durbin.

Kirk was asked if he was going to remain a middle-of-the-road senator. He recalled some advice he once heard when he was an aide, “If flaming arrows are hitting both sides of the wagon, you are exactly where the American people want you. Most Americans are not far left or far right,” he said.

He said he would continue reaching out to other senators because “we love patriotism over party.”

Durbin gave an example of how sequestration has hurt Miami, where he visited the southern command and learned that they have been catching 200 tons of illegal drugs people were trying to smuggle into this country. But now, because of across the board cuts, they would lose $65 million. “They will go from stopping 200 tons to 90 tons. that means 110 tons will make it into the U.S., but what will it cost us when the drugs hit the U.S.?” He answered his own question by citing the increased costs of jails, policing, health problems.

“That kind of mindless cuts can’t do any good,” he said. “Some say its minimal and you won’t notice. They’re wrong,” he declared, adding that if they can’t get it done this year before October, then they have to get it done in the next fiscal year. Schnieder hoped that he and other freshman congressmen could find a way to end the across-the-board cuts. “There’s a new wave coming in,” he said, “We have to make hard choices on deciding how to make cuts,” he sid.

Kirk brought up immigration and said he planned to put in an amendment that was military specific that anyone earning a combat infantry badge (the one with the rifle) “automatically becomes a U.S. citizen. If you fought with us you are one of us,” said Kirk, who has 23 years in the Navy and Naval Reserves. While in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) class, one student asked him why he voted against President Obama’s immigration bill. “I voted against that because the trust has broken down between the American people and government,” he said, explaining that the borders are still too porous.

“There is a danger to this country that just throws its doors open,” he said.

Another student asked what the politicians can do to cut the crime rate in Illinois. “I have an idea for the 18,000 Gangster Disciples, do you know who they are? (the student nods yes). I would use federal money to put them in the new prison we just bought, Thomson prison,” he said, referring to the Thomson Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison north of Thomson, Ill.

Durbin said he was surprised to learn that Chicago has six times the number of guns per person than New York, although he did say Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was trying as hard as he could to keep crime down. “What’s that all about,” he said, adding that people are going somewhere else to buy guns and bring them back to Chicago. His solution is to make it a federal crime for straw purchasers, people who buy guns for those who cannot buy them legally. They should be looking at jail time, up to 15 years in prison.

“Girlfriends, think twice. Boyfriends, think twice. We need to come down hard on straw purchasers,” he said.

“One in 10 guns come from the state of Mississippi. All you need is a driver’s license. Buy as many as you want, put them in the trunk, drive back and pull into an alley and sell them for $200 bucks a piece. You can make a lot of money,” Durbin said. He fully supported the gun bill and background checks so felons and those mentally unstable can’t get guns.

Another question by students had to do with the high cost of higher education. Durbin urged them to think twice before loading up on debt and instead look at going to a community college or local college to save money and then transfer to a four-year school. But he also warned that some of the schools that advertise the most are the worst.

Kirk said that joining the military to pay for school was honorable, “but forget the Army, go Navy,” he said getting some laughs. Schneider said there were many pathways to take to learn what you want to learn.

“Just don’t let anyone tell you you can’t,” he said.

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