He came within nearly 5,000 votes of being governor of Illinois. But four years later, he bolted the Democratic ticket to run as a third party candidate after voters saddled him with a couple of fringe candidate as running mates.
For the better part of a century his name was a household word in U.S. politics — a member of a political dynasty that included both those who served in the White House and those who sought to but fell short.
Former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III died Monday at his North Side home at age 90.
His son Adlai Stevenson IV, who confirmed the Illinois Democrat’s death, said his father had dementia.
“He just faded away,” his son said.
Before his health declined, Mr. Stevenson kept active organizing presentations and speakers for the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy in Mettawa.
He also worked the family farm in Hanover, Illinois, raising Simmental cattle, growing corn and hay for their feed, and chopping wood.
Adlai Ewing Stevenson was born in Chicago, the great grandson of former Vice President Adlai Stevenson — who served in the Grover Cleveland administration — and the son of Adlai Stevenson II, a former Illinois governor and two-time presidential candidate in the 1950s.
The former U.S. senator served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War before his own storied career in politics began. That career included two runs for governor, including a narrow 1982 loss by just 5,074 votes to James R. Thompson.
That is the closest Illinois election for governor in modern state history.
Mr. Stevenson also served a two-year stint in the state House of Representatives and a term as state treasurer from 1967 to 1970.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn — also a former state treasurer — said Mr. Stevenson “was the first in the country of state treasurers on the cutting edge of using their investment power to create jobs and affordable housing.”
Mr. Stevenson made the leap from the treasurer’s office to the U.S. Senate in 1970 after being elected to serve out the remainder of the late Sen. Everett Dirksen’s term. He was re-elected in 1974.
While running for the U.S. Senate, Mr. Stevenson asked Mayor Richard J. Daley for advice.
“My advice to you is don’t change your name,” Daley told him.
In the nation’s upper legislative chamber, Mr. Stevenson served on the Commerce, Banking and Intelligence committees and was the first chairman of the Senate’s Ethics Committee.
The late senator also served as chair of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Oil and Gas Production — in that position he co-authored energy legislation that established the Department of Energy, fuel efficiency standards and development of alternative energy sources, according to a biography provided by his family.
Quinn said Mr. Stevenson deeply admired his father Adlai Stevenson II, who himself served as Illinois governor from 1949 to 1953.
“His dad had been governor … who he revered, and I think that was always something that Adlai sort of hoped for after he retired from being a U.S. senator, and I think that was after 12 years, and [he] decided to run for governor and almost made it,” Quinn said.
Mr. Stevenson ran for governor twice — once in 1982, a bid that saw him fall a little over 5,000 votes short of the governor’s mansion – and in 1986.
That 1986 campaign was thrown into chaos when the candidates Mr. Stevenson supported for lieutenant governor and secretary of state lost in the Democratic primary to followers of controversial fringe presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche.
Mr. Stevenson formed a third party to seek the seat because he “would never run on a ticket with candidates who espouse the hate-filled folly of Lyndon LaRouche,” he said at the time, according to the family biography.
Both times, Mr. Stevenson lost to Thompson, Illinois’ longest serving governor.
Political strategist David Axelrod said rivals underestimated Mr. Stevenson at their own peril.
“He had public service in his blood, but in many ways, Stevenson was unlike his dad,” said Axelrod, who worked for Mr. Stevenson in 1986. “He was not the quintessential liberal, and he was very, very tough, and people misunderstood that.
“He had a professorial kind of manner and a halting sort of way of speaking and people misread that as weakness. He was as tough a politician as I’ve ever worked with. … That Marine training was in his background.”
In 1986, “he would have beaten Thompson … but for the fact that the LaRouchies intervened and took three offices on the state ticket, including lieutenant governor,” Axelrod said. Yet running as an independent, “He still gave Thompson a race.”
Axelrod recalled a debate where Thompson took a low-key approach, and Stevenson “just mopped the floor with him.”
“Adlai was fearless,” Axelrod said.
“He really valued public service but he kind of hated politics, the artifice of politics,” Axelrod said. “He hated courting donors, he just didn’t like any of that and yet he had a very successful career. Yes, his name helped for sure, but it also was a reflection of his intellect, his strength and his principles.”
Though Mr. Stevenson was a loyal Democrat, his politics were his own.
“Everyone wanted to pigeonhole him as this great liberal, and he wasn’t that,” said former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley. “He really reflected the populace that he served – it wasn’t left; it wasn’t right. There were a lot of pieces to it. And he was always respectful, always a very nice guy to be around and he just had a lot of experience.”
Beyond politics, Mr. Stevenson traveled and worked in more than 80 countries and served on various boards, including chairing the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy.
He also had a keen interest in finance, East Asia and policies related to that region. His family said he was a past president of the U.S. Committee of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, former co-chair of the East Asia Financial Markets Development Project and a former president and chairman of the Japan America Society of Chicago.
Cook County Commissioner John P. Daley called him “gracious and issue-oriented.”
“Senator Stevenson was a thoughtful legislator who tackled difficult issues like ethics and campaign finance reform,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said, “Adlai was my friend and partner in countless causes over the years. Like his father before him, Adlai was most at home in the cerebral world of politics.
“His most effective ally in retail politics was his beloved wife, Nancy. The two were inseparable and one of the best teams in Illinois Democratic politics. Loretta and I send our love and sympathy to Nancy and the family.”
Mr. Stevenson met his future wife Nancy Anderson while he was in Fort Knox, Kentucky, for tank training. He served in Japan and Korea and achieved the rank of lieutenant. He was discharged in 1954, and they married the following year. By the time he left the Marine Reserves in 1961, he had become a captain.
He graduated from Harvard University and earned a law degree from Harvard in 1957.
In addition to his son Adlai IV, Mr. Stevenson is survived by his wife, brothers John and Borden, daughters Lucy and Katherine Stevenson, son Warwick and nine grandchildren.
Contributing: Lynn Sweet