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Don Rose: Remembering Dan Walker, the would-be populist

There was always a bit of the puritan to Dan Walker — and a bit of the charlatan.

Chief counsel and vice president of Montgomery Ward, an outfit not especially known for social consciousness, Walker also played the populist and the reformer. Highly charismatic, he attracted a near cult-like following who saw his 1972 election as governor — against the Chicago Machine — as something resembling the Second Coming. Needless to say, many of those followers were soured by his four years in office, which accomplished little, particularly in the way of reform, though I still know many who view that term as their own little Camelot.

OPINION

Walker made his bones with liberals and progressives by authoring the famed “Walker Report” on the 1968 protests in Chicago, dubbing the event a “police riot.” He later angered a group of liberals by supporting the death penalty — but he switched positions when they objected and threatened to withdraw support. So much for high principles, winding up with the right position for political reasons.

The great irony is that Walker defeated two men viewed as courageous and iconic reformers in their own way and whose legends will live on long past his.

In the primary, he stunned the state by defeating a well-known progressive legislator, Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon, who later went on to the U.S. Senate and even made a brief run for the presidency. That was the result of Walker’s terrific gimmick: walking the length of Illinois, bandanna around his neck, meeting people who had never met a politician running for anything higher than the local school board.

That stunt was borrowed from his old friend Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida and worked out by Walker’s brilliant manager and alter ego, the late Victor de Grazia. De Grazia was also successful in tying the reformer Simon to political boss Richard J. Daley — poison to liberals and downstaters.

Walker hailed from the affluent suburb of Deerfield, which he described to the downstaters on his trek as “a little town in Lake County, up near the Wisconsin border.” Who knew?

In the general election, Walker defeated Republican Gov. Richard J. Ogilvie, widely viewed as a hero for having the guts to create the state’s first income tax — an act he believed could easily lead to his defeat. He was right.

Once in office, Walker took a super-moralistic “my way or the highway” approach to both houses of the state Legislature and continued to combat Mayor Daley. The process we now call “triangulation” led to standoff after standoff, though he did get legislation passed that created the RTA — also the state’s first lottery. He also made several high-quality appointments to state departments and commissions, but his combative ways and poor handling of the state’s finances led to constant criticism from the media.

Late in his term, I wrote in the Chicago Reporter that “if Dan Walker came out for mother love, the press would call it incest.”

It came as no surprise that Walker was defeated in the next primary election by Michael Howlett, who then lost to James Thompson. But it was a surprise when we learned a few years later that he was found guilty of giving false information to a bank while seeking a business loan and served a year and a half  in federal prison.

Rigid? Hokey? Holier-than-thou? OK — that many believed. But a crook? No way.

Anyway, the best that can be said in this matter was the crime had nothing to do with his term in office. How many jailed Illinois governors can make that statement?

Don Rose is a political consultant based in Chicago.