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Remembering JRT

Monday, Aug 24, 2020

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

The late Jim Thompson was just 40 years old when he was first elected governor of Illinois in 1976. Rod Blagojevich was called a youthful politician, but he was 45 on the day he was elected governor. Jim Edgar was 44 in November 1990.

After serving 14 years as governor, longer than anyone else in Illinois history, Thompson was still just 54 years old the day he left office.

Thompson could’ve coasted on his reputation and lived a charmed life as a law firm rainmaker. Instead, he became chairman of Winston & Strawn and transformed it into the international legal powerhouse it is today.

Along the way, he served on the 9/11 Commission, chaired the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, did a little lobbying and argued numerous cases before the Illinois Supreme Court.

But his time as governor is what he’ll justifiably be most remembered for. He truly dominated Illinois, and the man was one of the best natural-born campaigners I’ve ever seen.

Thompson had the innate ability to wrap a blistering attack in a humorous coating. For instance, his 1982 opponent Adlai Stevenson III once complained that Thompson was treating him like “some kind of wimp.”

“I have never called Adlai Stevenson a wimp,” Thompson said to knowing laughter. “I don’t think he’s a wimp, whatever wimp means. Sun-Times called him a wimp, but I didn’t call him a wimp.”

Thompson just barely won that race, though the state was in the depths of the “Reagan recession.” Stevenson came back four years later, but Thompson had already adopted most of Stevenson’s best ideas from 1982 and Stevenson was obliterated after followers of Lyndon LaRouche created havoc by winning two statewide Democratic primaries. Like Barack Obama after him, Thompson’s opponents seemed to fall away on their own, but it was never that easy.

Thompson was a strong partisan on the campaign trail and with his innumerable patronage hires. He once said if two people were equally qualified to be a janitor, then he’d naturally prefer that a Republican was hired.

But he was a bipartisan dealmaker par excellence when it came to the General Assembly. Thompson and House Speaker Michael Madigan cooked up countless deals, with the new ballpark for the White Sox being the best known. When Senate President Phil Rock was having trouble with Madigan, Thompson would straighten things out.

When Senate Minority Leader Pate Philip wouldn’t take his calls, he physically barreled past Philip’s chief of staff and marched into the leader’s office and cleared the air.

The man knew how to handle people, and he knew how to pass a bill. And when he decided he wanted to be endorsed by both the AFL-CIO and the Illinois Chamber in his final reelection bid, he made it happen.

Gov. Richard Ogilvie helped move Illinois into modern times with a state income tax, but Thompson accelerated the process with his massive state building and construction programs. He traveled the world to attract businesses and was instrumental in opening a new automobile assembly plant in McLean County. He fathered the state’s nuclear energy program, which is still a cornerstone of our economy.

Along the way, he mentored countless people and helped even more with their careers. After convicting former Gov. Otto Kerner as U.S. attorney, Thompson argued strenuously for his early prison release on health grounds. He was, in a word, a mensch.

Thompson was a lover of art, a lover of knowledge and a lover of people.

All that being said, some of Thompson’s actions created a burdensome legacy for Illinois. Back in the 1970s, state retirees who’d worked for decades were stuck with tiny pensions that couldn’t possibly keep up with rampant inflation. Thompson eventually pushed through a compounded annual cost of living pension increase that has since driven the state’s finances into a deep pit because the benefit increases were never properly funded.

And during his years in office, the state budget did not nearly keep pace with the need for more money for K-12 schools, a habit that has continued to this day and has caused huge property tax hikes.

I do not think he knew how much the pension change would cost, and just about every politician loves pandering to the elderly. And Illinois still had fairly reasonable property taxes at the time.

Whatever. I could never hold a grudge against that man. I respected him, warts and all. Rest in peace, Big Jim.

There was an error in the original version of this column. Retirement income was exempted from the state income tax before Thompson came to office. I mistakenly thought he was responsible. Heck, we even talked about it a few years ago for a column. Anyway, sorry about that.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

15 Comments
  1. - Sayitaintso - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 9:39 am:

    I recall a story of his youth, standing on his uncle hay rack out in the field, giving political speeches to no one. Seems he had a goal in mind, and honed it to a fine pitch…


  2. - Practical Politics - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 10:10 am:

    A rare miscalculation was Thompson’s decision not to endorse Illinois native Ronald Reagan for President in 1980. He followed the early money and selected former Texas Governor John Connally who wound up withdrawing from the race.


  3. - JS Mill - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 10:17 am:

    I was a kid through most of Thompsons time as governor, but always followed him and what he did. He influenced my political thinking as much as John Locke, Mill, Reagan or anyone else. During my late teens, 20’s and 30’s I identified as a Republican because of Big Jim. Partisan, to a point, but not hateful and able to get things done. Leader.

    =because the benefit increases were never properly funded.

    And during his years in office, the state budget did not nearly keep pace with the need for more money for K-12 schools, a habit that has continued to this day and has caused huge property tax hikes=

    This needs to be stated more often. Thanks Rich.


  4. - Friendly Bob Adams - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 11:10 am:

    The election of the LaRouche followers in the Dem primary in 1986 always seemed to be a dirty trick by Thompson’s team. I’ve spoken to a couple of old timers who are sure that’s what happened, while most others disagree.

    Either way, the economy had returned for the better and Stevenson was doomed.


  5. - Ducky LaMoore - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 11:40 am:

    “Thompson eventually pushed through a compounded annual cost of living pension increase that has since driven the state’s finances into a deep pit because the benefit increases were never properly funded.”

    While I mostly agree, I think it is important to note that inflation had historically been much higher than it is now. 4% inflation was fairly routine. And when the pension reforms were signed, inflation was 4.6%. A decade earlier there were years of over 12% inflation. This wasn’t meant to be a huge giveaway to retirees, but a more of a lifeline. I don’t think anyone predicted at the time that the country would struggle to hit 2% inflation over the course of 15 years.


  6. - Candy Dogood - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 11:54 am:

    So is there a plan to start talking about the legacy of his behavior that lead to the Rutan decision or is this something we’re all supposed to ignore?


  7. - Rich Miller - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 11:58 am:

    ===the legacy of his behavior that lead to===

    You think he was the first governor to do that? C’mon.


  8. - Candy Dogood - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 12:27 pm:

    ===You think he was the first governor to do that? C’mon.===

    You mean do I think he was the first governor who utilized public jobs to provide patronage to his supporters and donors? Absolutely not. I don’t even think he was the last one and the one who did it for the longest period of time and so egregiously it wasn’t only noticed, it wound up being taken to the United States Supreme Court that had to tell a competent attorney that it was illegal discrimination to only hire people that vote for you or donate to your political campaigns and those of your friends.

    He inappropriately awarded tens of thousands of state jobs for his own personal political gain. That’s the kind of thing that should be a permanent footnote on his legacy as a Governor. As a person born in the 1980s I just can’t grasp the extent to this and other corruption issues are explicitly ignored when reflecting on the good ol’ times.

    What’s next? Defending folks with “Do you think he is the first legislator to take a bribe?”


  9. - Dotnonymous - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 1:24 pm:

    - Practical Politics - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 10:10 am:

    A rare miscalculation was Thompson’s decision not to endorse Illinois native Ronald Reagan for President in 1980.

    A prescient show of good sense was what that was.


  10. - Downstate - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 1:40 pm:

    “I don’t think anyone predicted at the time that the country would struggle to hit 2% inflation over the course of 15 years.”

    It’s interesting to note that between 1959-1965 (7 years) inflation never crested 2%. They didn’t have too look back that far to realize that was a possibility.


  11. - Nearly Normal - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 1:48 pm:

    Governor Thompson was one of the few politicians that enjoyed mixing with people of all social strata. He could go anywhere and talk to people not at them. He listened and responded not with the usual political rhetoric. People respond to that and will vote for someone even in the other party.

    The only other politician who acted that way was Judy Barr Topinka. Illinois is lesser without these two (or any pols like them) in politics today.


  12. - Levois J - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 3:34 pm:

    Very good column today. I was just too young to appreciate his many accomplishments as our Governor. When will the next Big Jim Thompson emerge. We need someone who is effective.


  13. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 5:19 pm:

    To the post,

    Rich, great read, an honest look, “warts and all”, good stuff.

    For me, grateful for these revisits Rich has had, now this column here, it’s important, in context too, how very far the GOP has fallen, or more critically, how far the GOP in Illinois has wandered away from voters all over Illinois.

    This I particularly loved, loved as someone who revered Thompson, Edgar, Topinka, this is the ball game. This is Thompson;

    === But he was a bipartisan dealmaker par excellence when it came to the General Assembly. Thompson and House Speaker Michael Madigan cooked up countless deals, with the new ballpark for the White Sox being the best known. When Senate President Phil Rock was having trouble with Madigan, Thompson would straighten things out.

    When Senate Minority Leader Pate Philip wouldn’t take his calls, he physically barreled past Philip’s chief of staff and marched into the leader’s office and cleared the air.

    The man knew how to handle people, and he knew how to pass a bill. And when he decided he wanted to be endorsed by both the AFL-CIO and the Illinois Chamber in his final reelection bid, he made it happen.===

    It’s about doing the business, and knowing the levers of government, and working the politics of personalities and responsibilities.

    Where are the next Thompsons… Edgars… Topinkas… the cult of personality that is the current president, whose platform now is “whatever the White House says” according to the RNC in Charlotte this week, where are the leaders a GOP starving for the next Thompson in Illinois?

    I read the above and wonder aloud “who of 63 legislators serving now could be a Thompson?”. Who could handle the levers of power with a love of Illinois as the compass and the partisan policy that can be navigated?

    Godspeed JRT.

    It’s true, there won’t be another like him.

    It’s also true that no one is threatening that challenge of emulation.

    The party is at the crossroads. The map of a JRT would serve someone well to rebuild our state’s chance at a strong two party governing.


  14. - Anonanonsir - Monday, Aug 24, 20 @ 6:18 pm:

    ==predicted at the time that the country would struggle to hit 2% inflation==

    A lot of things happen in the economy and markets that few predicted. The question is, why were politicians predicting the economy at all?
    They awarded a fixed annual raise when they could have simply linked the increase to the rate of inflation.


  15. - Southern Girl - Tuesday, Aug 25, 20 @ 2:56 am:

    NO ONE ANYWHERE HAS BOTHERED TO EVEN ONCE MENTION THE LATE, GREAT JIM SKILLBECK, WHO MADE BIG JIM. “SKILBY: WAS CALLED THE WHIZ KID BEHIND JRT BY THE CHICAGO SUN TIMES. DOESN’T ANYBODY REMEMBER? SKILBY MET A TERRIBLE END.
    MAY THEY BOTH REST IN PEACE


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