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November 12, 2010

Ex-prof elected state rep

U of C math professor-turned-politician Daniel Biss won a seat on the Illinois House of Representatives in last week’s election.

Biss, a Democrat who left the University two years ago, will represent Illinois’s 17th State Representative District, the suburbs of Chicago including parts of Glenview, Northfield, south Northbrook, west Wilmette, west Evanston, northeast Morton Grove, and north Skokie.

Biss said teaching may not traditionally be considered a gateway to politics, but it was “better preparation than most people who have experience in academia and are interested in public life might expect.”

“When you’re running, you basically spend your whole time trying to explain to people who have a diverse array of learning styles, interests, and attention spans: that’s exactly what you’re doing in the context of a classroom,” he said.

A 33-year-old who earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard and his Ph.D. from MIT, Biss said his first serious involvement in political campaigns was in 2004, after joining the University as a math instructor in 2002 and being made an assistant professor of mathematics in 2005.

In 2008, he led his first bid for Representative against Republican incumbent Elizabeth Coulson, which was unsuccessful. But in order to be on the ballot in 2008, Biss said he had to begin to petition and campaign in 2007, leading to tensions between his two full-time commitments.

“I felt that if I won the election, it would be totally crazy to promise my constituents that I can definitely do the job of state representative with the concern they deserve while also being a faculty member at the University,” Biss said.

“It seems dishonest to say I can definitely be a full-time faculty member a d a legislator. That doesn’t seem practical. I could have asked for a leave or some kind of an extension, but I decided the most honest thing to do was to leave.”

Third-year Jonathan Libgober from Oak Park campaigned for Biss in 2008, the summer before he came to the U of C. He said Biss would do whatever he could to meet as many constituents as possible.

“He is the most hardworking individual I’ve ever met in my entire life. He would walk five hours every day in scorching heat,” he said.

But Biss lost the 2008 election to Coulson, who “was billed as the one Republican Democrats would vote for,” Libgober said.

Biss worked in a series of short-term political jobs, including campaign manager for Elizabeth Tisdahl, mayor of Evanston, before being called upon by Governor Pat Quinn to be a policy advisor for ethics and transparency.

With Coulson running unsuccessfully to fill Illinois’s 10th congressional district seat vacated by U.S. Senator-elect Mark Kirk, Biss ran this year, allowing him to sweep the Democratic vote. He defeated first-time Republican candidate Hamilton Chang with 54 percent of the vote.

As a former educator, Biss hopes to bring new perspective to the Illinois House of Representatives.

“Here in 2010, when we love nothing more than talking about the importance of having a highly educated, high-tech workforce, you wouldn’t think it would require, in that environment, a university professor to make the argument that it’s absolutely critical to support our institutions of public higher education. But it seems to be an argument that has not been made adequately strongly when the actual difficult decisions are made in the budgetary process,” he said.

Besides an ability to deal with the technical side of government, Biss said his experience in higher education will help him gain support for policies and encourage education initiatives. “I think it will be valuable to have somebody who can speak from personal experience what the points of and benefits to all of society are of having first-class institutions of higher education in our state,” he said.

According to fourth-year statistics major Jarret Petrillo, who took one of Biss’ Inquiry-Based Learning classes in the Calculus 160s sequence three years ago, he was a teacher that could leave students enough room to learn by themselves, but also guide them to the right train of thought.

“He calls people up to do proofs and then tears them apart until it’s perfect. He was a phenomenal teacher. Somehow he was able to sit in the back of the class and still make sure it didn’t go too far astray,” Petrillo said.

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