Mention Lyndon LaRouche Jr. to people under 30, and they will probably scratch their heads.
Talk to someone who has been following politics in Chicago for a few decades, and they likely will readily recall LaRouche’s polarizing, conspiracy-based, extremist fringe brand of politics and how he drove a tank through the Illinois political landscape in the 1980s.
Actually, it was one of LaRouche’s followers who won a spot on the Democratic ticket and pledged to lead tanks down State Street.
LaRouche, who died Tuesday at age 96, was a far-right political extremist who ran for president in every election from 1976 to 2004, including a campaign waged from federal prison.
LaRouche grew up in Lynn, Mass., and in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a member of the Socialist Workers Party, taking the name “Lyn Marcus.”
He began his political career as a Marxist-Leninist before evolving into a Trotskyite and later veering sharply to the right.
LaRouche, who espoused a wide range of conspiracy theories and advocated for an overhaul of the world’s economic and financial systems, ran his 1992 presidential campaign from a prison cell after a 1988 conviction for mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud the IRS by defaulting on more than $30 million in loans from campaign supporters. During a 1984 libel trial, LaRouche said he had no income and had filed no tax returns for 12 years.
In Illinois, LaRouche is remembered primarily for leading a movement that came out of nowhere to upend the Democratic Party in the 1986 elections.
Two LaRouche-backed political unknowns — Mark J. Fairchild and Janice A. Hart — scored stunning upsets over the favored candidates that year in the Democratic primaries for lieutenant governor and secretary of state, respectively.
After her surprising victory, Hart famously declared “I’m going to revive the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and General Patton, and we’re going to roll our tanks down State Street.”
Hart upset Aurelia Pucinski in the Democratic primary for secretary of state, and Fairchild beat state Sen. George Sangmeister to become the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.
Hart was the more vocal of the two, but Fairchild posed the bigger political problem, since he was instantly paired with the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Adlai Stevenson III. Back then, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor ran separately in the primary, but as a ticket in the general election.
The 1986 election was supposed to be a grudge match of sorts for Stevenson. Four years earlier, he lost to Republican Gov. Jim Thompson by a mere 5,074 votes — one of the closest statewide elections in Illinois history.
But in 1986, he suddenly found himself hobbled to Fairchild and Hart and facing certain defeat — and months of disavowing their beliefs. Instead, Stevenson bolted the ticket and created the new Solidarity Party for a one-time political run. That meant there would be no Democratic candidate for governor on the ballot, leaving the party doomed.
Thompson won the race for governor, pulling in 52.7 percent of the vote to Stevenson’s 40 percent. The Democratic slate with no candidate for governor garnered 6.6 percent.
On Wednesday, LaRouche’s PAC described him as a “philosopher, scientist, poet, statesman” who died on the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, whom he celebrated in his writings.
“Those who knew and loved Lyndon LaRouche know that humanity has suffered a great loss, and today we dedicate ourselves anew to bring to reality the big ideas for which history will honor him,” the organization said in a statement posted online.
Back in 1986, the Democratic Party in Washington offered a different view, condemning the Illinois vote.
“LaRouche represents the kook fringe of American politics,” party spokesman Terry Michael said at the time.
Contributing: Associated Press