No­body else quite mea­sures up to Big Jim

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - MARK BROWN PO­LIT­I­CAL MAT­TERS mark­brown@sun­ | @MarkBrownC­ST

The Win­ston & Strawn law firm holds an an­nual hol­i­day re­cep­tion at the Drake Ho­tel that for decades was a mea­sure of the last­ing in­flu­ence and pres­tige of its chair­man, James R. Thompson, the for­mer gov­er­nor of Illi­nois.

The gov­er­nor would po­si­tion him­self at the head of a large ball­room, usu­ally with his wife, Jayne, at his side, while for­mer mem­bers of his staff and po­lit­i­cal cir­cle waited in a re­ceiv­ing line with the firm’s younger lawyers for a chance to pay their re­spects.

Long af­ter Thompson left the gov­er­nor’s of­fice in 1991, the room would still be full of the state’s movers and shak­ers, many of them hav­ing achieved that sta­tus with the help of the man they’d all come to see.

Al­though my only con­nec­tion was as a jour­nal­ist who had cov­ered him a long time, I went to last year’s party think­ing it might be my last chance to talk to him. But when I ar­rived, I learned he wasn’t there and had at­tended only spo­rad­i­cally in re­cent years be­cause of his health. With Thompson’s death Fri­day, there won’t be an­other op­por­tu­nity.

In the same way older Chicagoans meant Richard J. Da­ley when­ever they said “The Mayor,” even long af­ter his death, I’m part of a gen­er­a­tion in Illi­nois pol­i­tics that al­ways had Thompson in mind when they said “The Gov­er­nor.”

He was my point of ref­er­ence, the model for how the job was to be done, which is not to over­look the flaws in his ap­proach or the mis­takes that re­sulted from it.

But for 14 years, Thompson showed there was room in this state for a mod­er­ate Repub­li­can who could work with Democrats to try to solve prob­lems and make gov­ern­ment work. He also seemed to have fun at it, a char­ac­ter­is­tic of­ten sorely missed in the decades since.

“He didn’t de­mo­nize the other side. He knew he needed to work with them, and they needed to work with him,” Jim Prescott, his for­mer Chicago press sec­re­tary, said Sun­day.

Every­one who has fol­lowed af­ter Thompson is judged by the stan­dard he set.

Whether it was a Chicago school fi­nance cri­sis or the threat­ened de­par­ture of the White Sox to Florida, Thompson un­der­stood how to ma­nip­u­late the levers of power to ac­com­plish his goals.

“He did things. Thompson was a doer,” said Greg Baise, who served in his cabi­net as state Trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary, man­aged his 1986 re­elec­tion and went on to run the Illi­nois Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion.

When most peo­ple talk about Thompson’s legacy, they point to the con­crete ed­i­fices like the new Sox sta­dium, the re­made Navy Pier and the ex­panded McCormick Place.

But I al­ways think of the peo­ple he helped el­e­vate to po­si­tions of in­flu­ence, not just in pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment, but also in the le­gal pro­fes­sion, the courts and the busi­ness world.

Thompson had an eye for tal­ent that started in his days as U.S. at­tor­ney and con­tin­ued through his four terms in Spring­field.

“He re­ally took a tremen­dous amount of pride in choos­ing good peo­ple,” said Mike Lawrence, who cov­ered Thompson as a re­porter be­fore be­com­ing Jim Edgar’s press sec­re­tary.

Most of the lawyers whose ca­reers where pro­moted by Thompson are well-known to Chicagoans: Dan Webb, Ty Fah­ner, Tony Valukas, Sam Skin­ner. Then there are the judges: James Zagel, Joel Flaum and Ilana Rovner, to name a few.

On the po­lit­i­cal side, the list of Thompson’s prod­ucts starts with Edgar, his di­rec­tor of leg­isla­tive af­fairs, who went on to suc­ceed him as gov­er­nor. Then, for bet­ter or worse, there’s Ge­orge Ryan, his lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, who later as­cended to the top of­fice be­fore go­ing to prison. Thompson also plucked Jack O’Mal­ley from ob­scu­rity to help make him Cook County state’s at­tor­ney.

Baise is one of Thompson’s po­lit­i­cal prod­ucts. Al­though he lost his only run for elec­tive of­fice for state trea­surer in 1990, he fash­ioned a very suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a lob­by­ist and po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant.

Baise is one of a group of Thompson’s for­mer trav­el­ing aides, af­fec­tion­ately known as the “bag boys,” who learned the game of pol­i­tics at the gov­er­nor’s side.

Baise is now run­ning a cam­paign to de­feat the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment for a grad­u­ated in­come tax, and even as some­one who dis­ap­proves of his goal, I have to ad­mire the skills he brings to the task.

Thompson be­lieved in po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age, a point on which we di­verge. He was es­pe­cially shrewd in de­vel­op­ing a sys­tem of what came to be known as pin­stripe pa­tron­age — lever­ag­ing state busi­ness to lawyers, bankers, ar­chi­tects and en­gi­neers, most of whom sym­bi­ot­i­cally helped him raise cam­paign money.

For some­one who made his rep­u­ta­tion le­git­i­mately as a cor­rup­tion-bust­ing pros­e­cu­tor, Thompson had the odd­est eth­i­cal blind spots, such as tak­ing a gift of $500 in cash from a Team­sters official he con­sid­ered a friend and set­ting aside gifts he wanted on a shelf at a Chicago an­tique store so that other peo­ple could buy them for him.

They don’t make them like Jim Thompson any­more, and maybe that’s for the best, but I will al­ways be glad I got to see him in ac­tion.


For­mer Gov. Jim Thompson in 1993.

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