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Andy Shaw: Quotes worth sharing from Abner Mikva

On Nov. 24, 2014, President Barack Obama awards former Illinois Rep. Abner Mikva the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

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After President Barack Obama celebrated Abner Mikva’s distinguished career in 2014 with a Medal of Freedom award, we featured Mikva in our “BGA Good Government Spotlight” series with a video interview and print story.

Following his death last week I trimmed and edited a few interesting excerpts from the interview that are worth sharing:

  • The “quote.” “It was 1948 and I had just to come to Chicago from Wisconsin for law school. Adlai Stevenson was running for governor and Paul Douglas was running for senator, so I stopped in at the 8th Ward Democratic headquarters and said, ‘Hi, I’m Abner Mikva, and I’d like to volunteer.’ The quintessential ward committeeman took the cigar out of his mouth, leered at me, and said, ‘Who sent you, kid?’ I said, ‘Well, nobody sent me.’ He put the cigar back in and said, ‘We don’t want nobody nobody sent.’ And that was the beginning of my political career in Chicago.”


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  • His first Springfield bill in 1956. “The tradition was that every member was allowed to pass his first bill in the General Assembly, and my first bill was on ‘open occupancy’ — to prohibit housing discrimination because of race or religion.

“It was very controversial, and when it comes up for debate I get up and say, ‘Mr. Speaker…’ but a Downstate lawmaker interrupts, ‘Is this your first bill?’

“I said, ‘Yes it is,’ and it passes unanimously. I’m flabbergasted, and they’re coming up and congratulating me, but no one knows what’s in the bill except me, no one asked, no one’s given me a chance to explain it.

“Then it got to the Senate. The real estate lobby and landlords saw what was in it, and it never saw the light of day again.”

    Two old political foes, Mayor Richard J. Daley and Abner Mikva, former state representative, talk at a dinner for Daley in the Concord Hilton Hotel in 1967. | Sun-Times Library
    Two old political foes, Mayor Richard J. Daley and Abner Mikva, former state representative, talk at a dinner for Daley in the Concord Hilton Hotel in 1967. | Sun-Times Library
  • Chicago mayors. “I was never a fan of Richard J. Daley, he was never a fan of mine, and I thought the city didn’t work well under him. It worked well in the Loop, but out in the neighborhoods the city was in pretty bad shape. I didn’t think Jane Byrne did much to improve the situation. I was very impressed with the job Richard M. Daley did spreading out the goodies of Chicago to the entire city. A lot of the groundwork for that was laid in the Harold Washington campaign. Richie kept up with that and I think Rahm Emanuel has done a good job in that respect. It’s very hard — being mayor of a big city like Chicago is one of the hardest jobs in the country.”
  • Why he wasn’t named to the Supreme Court. “I was too old, too male, too white and too liberal. By the time Bill Clinton became president in 1992 I was already well into my 60s and my time had passed.”
  • What’s wrong with today’s politics. “The amount of money that is being spent in political campaigns is so huge there is no way to get elected without seeking out special interests for contributions. It’s awfully difficult to separate out the special interest from the public interest when money is so huge a part of getting elected.

“I can’t imagine running for public office under today’s circumstances.”

Mikva felt differently 60 years ago, when he ran and won a seat in the Illinois House before becoming a congressman, a federal judge, a White House counsel and a civic leader.

An independent Democrat whose reputation for honesty and integrity epitomized public service done the right way.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association.


Twitter: @andyshawbga

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