State Rep. Mary Flowers part of Ill. history

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State Rep. Mary E. Flowers, D-31st Dist., has been in the state Legislature for nearly 27 years and is the most senior African American in the Illinois House.

State Rep. Mary E. Flowers, D-31st Dist., has been in the state Legislature for nearly 27 years and is the most senior African American in the Illinois House.

It’s a job she never dreamed of having, but it has become one that she can’t see herself not doing.

She told the Defender during an interview at her South Side field office that being a representative of the people is a tough job, a demanding one, and career choice marked by sacrifice. Still, the 59-year-old Flowers “wouldn’t trade nothing for my journey.”

“These years that I’ve been (state rep) have been some of the best years of my life,” said Flowers who chairs the Health Care Availability Access committee. She’s quick to tell how much she loves her job, primarily because of the impact she feels she makes on people’s lives.

It is her work on this committee that has posed some of the most challenges for Flowers, but has also led to some of her proudest work and moments as an elected official.

But Flowers, a former librarian for the then-University of Illinois Circle Campus (now Univ. of Ill.-Chicago), had no interest in politics as a youth and young adult –– except to tell the late Harold Washington what she would and would not do if she were in his role as state representative.

She met Washington after demanding her mother to take her down to his local legislative office to meet him. Her mother had previously denied young Flowers’ requests to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was in Chicago. But her mother took her to meet with Washington.

“I just wanted to meet this man because I was always intrigued with what he had to say,” she said.

A bond was forged that would have Washington call Flowers, personally, after he was elected mayor and tell her to run for state rep.

“’What? Are you crazy? You know I can’t run for no state representative, I didn’t finish college, I didn’t can’t do this, I can’t do that,’” Flowers said she mouthed off to the then-mayor. Flowers had attended Kennedy King College and UIC but never completed her undergraduate degree.

But she said he dismissed her rant and told her not to say what she could and could not do. He told her to run for the office – and win. In 1984 she was elected state representative for the 31st District and was sworn in for her first term in 1985. She has held the office ever since and considers herself to be a force in Springfield now.

“If anybody had to write my life story in Springfield, I can say that I’ve had it my way. I didn’t want anybody to give me anything and they didn’t. I didn’t mind going to fight for it, I did. Am I proud of a lot of my legislation, yes I am. Would I make some changes if I could, I would; nothing’s perfect.

Her early days in office would see Flowers take on the Ill. Department of Children and Family Services because of her disdain for some of the state agency’s practices. But after getting on the health care committee, she took on the “lucrative” health care industry.

“I was dumbfounded to know the power of an insurance company,” Flowers said. “To know that your loved one may have died and you don’t even know the reason why, because of a simple error or because of the greed of an insurance company. To know that they could delay or deny you access that could further deteriorate your health and cause your death…there’s a problem.”

She drafted and got passed legislation that required non-emergency medical facilities to have the “emergency” moniker removed from their building exteriors because she felt it was misleading.

She’s proud of her bill on hospitals that led to the state’s adoption of the Hospital Report Card.

Taking on insurance companies was never easy, she admits, but a fight she said she couldn’t back down from. She said she would not cower on health issues even as her garage adjacent to her home in Chicago was tagged with graffiti, and she was given the wrong prescriptions – she thinks on purpose – by doctors.

“The more I have to fight, the better off this fight is gonna be,” she says assertively. “Because you see the people…you know who you’re fighting for.”

“I love making a difference,” she repeated. “There are many times when you may feel that you may have been defeated on an issue. But you know what I tell them? And they know it’s true, ‘I’ll be back. I’ll be back,’” Flowers didn’t win the war against health maintenance organizations, but she did champion battles for patients, helping to give Illinois its Patient’s Bill of Rights.

For years she’s taken the three-hour drive from her South Side home to Springfield and the often gruff and grueling world of state politics.

“You have to prepare for the knives and all the garbage that gets thrown at you” to work in Springfield, said Flowers, who goes by her maiden name. She’s been married to her longtime love since 1990, though they’ve been together since long before then. The couple had their only child, daughter Makeda, when Flowers was 40 years old.

Putting in time as state rep often meant missing time with her daughter and there were times, Flowers said, she grappled with that. But it would be a precocious Makeda who would quell her mother’s guilt.

“Eventually, my daughter told me that I was good mom and that was important to me,” she said choking up. She praises her husband for being by her side too.

Flowers has no plans in the near future to leave her post. She said she watches what she eats, gets on the treadmill regularly, ensures that her family is taken care of and keeps her eyes and ears open for opportunities to make a difference in her constituents’ lives.

Her fight as a won’t-bite-my-tongue leader has been a fierce one she admits. And she acknowledges that she’s had to break through some gender barriers. Flowers said that the fight in politics can sometimes be tougher for women than men.

“I’ve had to tell some of my colleagues, ‘you left your wife at home,’ because some of them bring that mentality with them” she said. “It’s all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

She believes she’s gotten better at her job with time.

“That’s what’s good about longevity … I’m just getting good at what I do. You don’t get angry as fast. You’re not as judgmental. You step back and you can take a deep breath, and you can smile at someone else’s mistake because you think, you remember ‘but for the grace of God there could go I or there once went I. And when I look back over the years, you just evolve into all you’re supposed to be,” she said.

Flowers said she doesn’t have her sights set – right now – on any other political office. She says if she were to pursue another office, it would be governor because to head any other statewide position would make her simply a figurehead.

“I have to make a difference. I would never want to be just a figurehead,” she said.

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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