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

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His detractors ridiculed him as “Al the Pal.”

His supporters never quite saw that as an insult.

Former Sen. Alan J. Mr. Dixon carved out a four-decade long career in Illinois’ rough-and-tumble politics by essentially being a nice guy.

Opponents dimissed him as an old-school glad hander.  But the Belleville Democrat prided himself on being able to get along with Democrats and Republicans alike and “sit down and make a deal.”

Mr. Dixon, 86, died Sunday morning at his downstate home.

“He was a statesman, but he was also a warm and friendly soul who never met a stranger,” Gov. Pat Quinn said.

Friend and former aide Tim McAnarney was with Mr. Dixon through his years as state treasurer, secretary of state and eight of his 12 years in the U.S. Senate.

“No one ever worked for Alan,” McAnarney said. “He’d say, ‘How’s my friend Tim McAnarney?’ He was always telling us he worked with us, and he cared about getting things done.”

Mr. Dixon made no apologies for his amiable style. As recently as last year, he argued that was sadly missing in Washington, D.C., today.

“We  don’t have any bipartisanship now. We’ve just got everybody mad at one another. Not speaking,” Mr. Dixon said in an interview on WTAX-AM radio in Springfield. 

“When I was there, you went out at night and had a beer with Danny Quayle or Bob Dole or somebody like that. I mean everybody was friendly. You worked out things.” 

Mr. Dixon, who would have turned 87 on Monday, died about 8:30 a.m. Sunday at his home in downstate Fairview Heights, said Gene Callahan, his former chief of staff.

Mr. Dixon returned to his home from a hospital on Thursday. 

Callahan said Mr. Dixon was “in good shape” until recently, though he suffered from a variety of age related illnesses.

In a phone interview Sunday, McAnarney said he’d just seen Mr. Dixon.

“I went to see him two weeks ago, and we knew he was getting weak,” McAnarney said. “But I had a great visit with him and just am happy I got to see him.”

“I still don’t really believe it,” Alan Dixon’s son Jeff Dixon said on Sunday. “The way I feel right now is how I felt in March of 1992, when he lost the only election he ever lost.”

Dixon’s son remembers going on the campaign trail with him throughout the years and getting chills from his speeches.

“It was always basically the same speech, but he would change it a little for whatever region he was speaking at,” Dixon’s son said. “I would get these chills up my back. Nobody could come close.”

Alan Dixon spent the first 20 years of his political career as a representative and senator in the Illinois Statehouse, from 1951 to 1971, according to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. He served as state treasurer, secretary of state and eventually U.S. senator, a post he held for 12 years.

He was born July 7, 1927, in Belleville. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1949 and was admitted to Washington University’s law school.

Mr. Dixon started a law practice in Belleville in 1949. He was elected in 1951 as a state representative. He served 12 years before becoming a state senator in 1963.

He was widely considered a household name in Illinois politics. He replaced Illinois’ corrupt justice of the peace-police magistrate system with the current court system. He also is credited with creating the state’s community college system and leading an unpopular fight against loyalty oaths in Illinois during the plague of McCarthyism.

Mr. Dixon moved on from the Legislature in 1971 and hired McAnarney to be a campaign and personal aide for his eventual successful bid for state treasurer.

McAnarney, now 64, stuck with Mr. Dixon through his years as treasurer, secretary of state and eight years of his 12-year tenure as a U.S. senator, he said.

Carol Moseley Braun snagged the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate and eventually won the seat in 1992.

Perhaps Mr. Dixon’s most notable political effort in the Senate was hosting monthly lunches for Illinois’ 22 Congress members to discuss a project they could all agree on, despite party background, McAnarney said.

Promoting his autobiography on WTAX radio last year, Mr. Dixon said some of his style would help solve the pension crisis in Springfield.

He said all sides needed to come together and reach a compromise.

“Sit down and make a deal,” he said.

Mr. Dixon told of serving as a go-between in talks between Dole, the Senate’s Republican leader, and Mr. Dixon’s friend “Danny” Rostenkowski, then powerful Democratic head of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“We  all talked in those days and were friends’ and carried on in a way that was civilized. And that’s got to happen again in this country,” Dixon said.

Mike McKeon, a former pollster for Mr. Dixon, said in a phone interview that Mr. Dixon was a politician who never betrayed the state.

“A lot of these guys fall in love with Washington, but not Dixon,” said McKeon, 68. “He was always loyal and always represented the people in Illinois.”

Mr. Dixon was the first Democrat in the state to fully disclose to the public his net worth, said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. 

“From his days as a Police Magistrate in Belleville to his leadership position in the United States Senate, Alan Dixon was known for his honesty, his hard work and his commitment to the state he loved,” Durbin said in the statement. 

“I lost a pal today and Illinois lost a man who brought honor to public service,” Durbin said in a statement. 

After Mr. Dixon left politics, he returned to work as a lawyer until last year, McAnarney said. He spent his free time golfing and had most recently gone on a golf tour last winter, McAnarney added.

Indeed, Alan Dixon penned an autobiography released last year titled “The Gentleman from Illinois: Stories from Forty Years of Elective Public Service.”

In addition to his son, Mr. Dixon is survived by his wife, Jody, and two daughters, McAnarney said. He also is survived by several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“He had a wonderful ride,” McArnaney said. “He was the last of a vanishing breed.”

Contributing: Lynn Sweet, STM Wire

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