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Nobody else quite measures up to Big Jim

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

Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson sits in his Chicago office in this Oct. 14, 1986, photo.
AP

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.