‘Al the Pal’ — Dixon relished the nickname

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WASHINGTON — The last gathering of Al and his pals here was in October, when the gang got together at the Monocle, a Capitol Hill favorite of former Sen. Alan J. Dixon, D-Ill., who died Sunday. The party celebrated the publication of Dixon’s memoir, “The Gentleman From Illinois: Stories From Forty Years of Elective Public Service.”

Dixon’s 29-election winning streak actually stretched a little longer, starting in 1949 when he was elected Belleville’s Police Magistrate and ending in 1992, when he lost the Illinois Democratic Senate primary to Carol Moseley Braun, in large part because of his vote to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court after Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment.

The Monocle gathering, populated with Illinoisans, marked Dixon’s time in this town and his devotion to Illinois.

Dixon’s career was much more than the controversial vote that ended it. But it was hard to see that whole picture back in 1992, when I covered the primary. There was just so much interest in the Thomas vote, how it mobilized angry women in Illinois, and the historic opportunity Illinois had to elect the first female African-American to the Senate.

RELATED: Alan Dixon, former U.S. senator for Illinois, dead at 86

“Al the Pal” — he relished the nickname; his Senate office softball team name was “Al’s Pals” — was part of an era when congressmen actually got together, cut deals and got things done, a gigantic contrast to the ongoing partisan acrimony of today that yields only gridlock.

While some senators land in the chamber and start thinking about the Oval Office, that was not Dixon. “He was an Illinois guy,” his friend and former chief of staff Gene Callahan told me Sunday. (Callahan’s daughter is Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.)

Consider: At present it is the rare senator or House member who does not do some globetrotting; Callahan reminded me Dixon made only one foreign trip during his 12 years in the Senate.

“I read his book and it is a great history lesson in Illinois politics,” former Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., a former Transportation secretary under President Barack Obama, told me on Sunday.

LaHood got to know Dixon when he was chief of staff for former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill., and he studied how the Republican and the Democrat — both from downstate — forged a special cross-aisle relationship that he would go on to emulate.

The last time LaHood saw Dixon was at the Monocle, where the three sat together and Dixon and Michel “reminisced about the old days when the delegation would meet for lunch. He was a very bipartisan guy, very bipartisan.”

Behind closed doors, “He was always the one putting the compromise together,” recalled former Dixon legislative director Bill Mattea on Sunday. For all the “Al the Pal” persona, Dixon “was in my view, deceptively sharp,” Mattea said.

The Illinois breakfast Dixon founded with the late Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., survives to this day. The two Illinois Senators host a regular (at present twice a month or so) coffee and doughnuts affair open to any Illinoisan in town who wants to let their senators know about the issues they care about.

The Illinois delegation lunches Dixon started is a legacy that would be in better shape if more Illinois House Republicans decided to show up.

When Dixon was voted out by Democrats, when his streak came to an end, he was hurt. Said LaHood, “I think people were really stunned when [Dixon] did what he thought was right on a very important Supreme Court vote and it cost him his seat.”

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