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Former Cook County Assessor Tom Hynes dies at 80

Thomas Hynes | Sun-Times files

Former Cook County Assessor Thomas Hynes, a gentlemanly giant of Chicago Democratic politics for more than four decades, died early Saturday after a long illness.

Hynes, 80, once served as president of the Illinois Senate and made a controversial bid for mayor against Harold Washington in 1987.

His political career stretched from his election as state senator in 1970 to 2014, when he stepped down from his position on the Democratic National Committee.

His death was confirmed by his son, Matt, a former senior adviser to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Hynes died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital from complications of Parkinson’s Disease, said another son, former Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes. Dan Hynes currently is deputy governor to Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Hynes spent 31 years as Democratic committeeman of the 19th Ward in Beverly, his calm and soft-spoken demeanor a contrast with the ward’s rough-and-tumble internal politics.

“He had a calming effect. I never heard him raise his voice,” explained Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who replaced Hynes as committeeman in 2005. “He could put his foot down when needed. But he was always a person who could bring people together.”

Although long regarded as a Democratic powerhouse with national reach (he chaired the Clinton/Gore presidential campaign in Illinois in 1996), his successors in 19th Ward politics say his political strength flowed from being a “neighborhood guy” at heart.

“He relished helping people in the neighborhood. He felt that was the key to success in politics,” said state Sen. Bill Cunningham, a 19th Ward product.

Dan Hynes said his father never pushed politics on any of his children, but that they grew up so many hearing stories from the people he helped that it was hard to resist.

“They’d say, ‘Your father saved my life,’ or ‘Your father helped me at a crucial time,’ or ‘Your father gave me the best advice,'” Dan Hynes said.

Hynes’ “outsized legacy” will live on through his “family of committed public servants who are making a difference,” Pritzker said in a statement.

“The stories told about our lives rest in the legacies we leave, in the people we shape and influence and care for who carry on the work we were devoted to,” the governor said. “Tom’s legacy lives on in his children and grandchildren and their continued commitment to Illinois and our country.”

Emanuel in a statement praised Hynes for his devotion to his family, friends and public service.

“Tom Hynes was a dedicated public servant and a true gentleman who represented his constituents and residents across Illinois with consummate class and dignity,” the mayor said.

Cunningham said the 19th Ward’s status as the ward that delivers the most voters to the polls election after election can be traced to Hynes’ leadership.

A “culture of involvement and engagement” created by Hynes continues even in the absence of the patronage job opportunities that helped make the Democratic Party what it was, Cunningham said.

Former 19th Ward Ald. Ginger Rugai said Hynes’ death was the end of an era.

“He was a gentleman statesman – a leader, ethical, polished, inclusive and thoughtful of opinions of others – unlike so many in today’s political atmosphere,” she said.

Some would say Hynes was unusual in that regard even by the standards of the generation he represented, although he was among several Chicago politicians of his era who came out of Quigley Preparatory Seminary and used his preparation for the priesthood as preparation for a political career.

He went on to graduate first in his class from Loyola Law School in 1963.

Hynes served as county assessor from 1978 to 1997, his tenure most notable for an absence of scandals that had long plagued the office. It was also notable for how he left — stepping down by surprise mid-term after arranging to hand off the job to his successor, James Houlihan.

Among his career highlights in Springfield, Hynes’ family cited his chief sponsorship of the Equal Rights Amendment for women and his authoring of the Homeowners Property Tax Exemption.

In 1977 at age 39, Hynes’ colleagues elected him Senate president after a marathon struggle requiring 186 ballots before a coalition of Republicans and Democrats picked him over the opposition of a group of Democratic holdouts.

With a full shock of wavy white hair and executive bearing, Hynes long looked the part of a U.S. senator, governor or mayor. When coupled with his good reputation, he was constantly the subject of speculation when openings for higher office arose.

But Hynes was also known as a very cautious politician, and he stayed put in the assessor’s job.

That changed in 1987 when he decided to run for mayor against Washington, who was seeking a second term after the racially-charged tumult of the Council Wars years.

Instead of competing in the Democratic primary, Hynes chose to run under the banner of the newly-created Chicago First Party.

The move was out of character for the risk-averse Hynes, and it ended badly.

Squeezed between Washington and former Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak, who was running for mayor as the Solidarity Party candidate, Hynes’ campaign failed to catch fire, and he ended up dropping out less than two days before the election.

“I love Chicago enough not to be mayor,” he declared at the time, but his challenge to Washington created ill will in the African American community that lingered long afterward.

Dan Hynes, whose own defeat years later to Barack Obama for U.S. senator could be traced in part to that resentment, said it was a highlight of his father’s later years that he was able as a member of the DNC Rules Committee to support Obama in a fight over super delegates with Hillary Clinton.

After retiring as assessor, Hynes worked in private practice as a lawyer until 2015. He also moved to Streeterville.

In addition to sons Matt and Dan, Hynes is survived by his wife Judy, daughter Leah Griffin, son Thomas and 10 grandchildren.

Services are pending.