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Former Gov. James Thompson, a giant of Illinois politics, dead at 84

Early in his career Thompson helped put one Illinois governor in prison and, toward his career’s end, he worked tirelessly and in vain trying to keep another out of jail.

Former Gov. James Thompson, shown here at a 2007 news conference, discussing  a federal appeals court opinion that upheld Gov. George Ryan’s racketeering and fraud conviction. Thompson died Friday at 84.
Former Gov. James Thompson, shown here at a 2007 news conference, discussing a federal appeals court opinion that upheld Gov. George Ryan’s racketeering and fraud conviction. Thompson died Friday at 84.
AP file photo

Back when there was such a thing as a liberal Republican politician, James Thompson was the GOP’s rising star.

“Big Jim” — he stood 6 feet 6 inches — was Illinois’ longest-serving governor. The native Chicagoan was elected four times and served 14 years. Though the most popular governor of the past half century, talk of his running as a Republican candidate for president in the late 1970s was scuttled in part by his strong convictions, beliefs that he refused to abandon merely to achieve his lifelong dream.

“I still believe that a reasonable pro-choice position is not only right but is a majority view of my party,” he once said. “But it’s not the majority view of the people who control my party.”

Thompson died Friday of heart failure at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, where he was undergoing treatment after being hospitalized, according to his wife, Jayne Thompson. He was 84.

“Part of his legacy being a man from Chicago — who loves Chicago — was that he also loved every part of the state, and spent tremendous time in southern and western Illinois. He didn’t neglect them,” Jayne Thompson said. “He was dedicated to building infrastructure in Illinois.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thompson “was known to treat people he encountered with kindness and decency. He dedicated himself to building positive change for Illinois, and he set an example for public service of which Illinoisans should be proud. He will be remembered and revered as one of the titans in the history of state government.”

As a zealous federal prosecutor in the early 1970s, he sped the collapse of Cook County’s Democratic machine. Early in his career Thompson helped put one Illinois governor in prison and, toward his career’s end, he worked tirelessly and in vain trying to keep another out of jail.

As governor, Thompson spurred construction of more highways and prisons than any other governor — he needed those prisons to house all the inmates incarcerated after he pushed through Class X mandatory minimums in his first term.

Thompson expanded McCormick Place, fought to keep the White Sox in Chicago when the team was practically on a plane to Florida, and built the $173 million salmon-and-blue Loop government office building later named for him. He also supported legislation that cleared the way for what would become the United Center.

To do all this, however, he had to raise taxes — the largest increase up to that point in state history — which caused his popularity to suffer in his last term, particularly after he arranged for the legislature to double his own pension.

For more than two decades after leaving office, Thompson led the powerful law firm of Winston & Strawn as chairman and CEO, bringing enormous growth and profitability, though questions were raised by the millions of dollars worth of billable hours spent defending former governor George Ryan — specifically, is this being done out of public spirit or self-interest? Thompson’s record is also marred by his presence on corporate boards of several companies that became mired in scandal, including Hollinger International when it owned the Chicago Sun-Times.

Spending the second half of his career in the law was an unwished-for departure for Thompson, who always saw himself at the summit of politics.

“Ever since I was 11 years old, I’ve said I wanted to be president of the United States,” he once recalled.

Big ambitions from the beginning

James Robert Thompson Jr. was born on the West Side of Chicago on May 8, 1936.

His mother, Agnes Swanson, of Swedish descent, grew up on a farm in DeKalb. She met his father, whom everyone called “Bob” and, later, “Tommy,” at the DeKalb Library. They moved to Chicago where Bob Thompson worked as an attendant at the morgue and studied to be a doctor. He got his medical license when the boy they called “Jimmy” was 8 years old.

The family lived in Garfield Park, and Thompson attended Morse Elementary then North Park Academy, a private school. He did not date in high school and was remembered by classmates as “girl shy.”

His 1953 yearbook lists his interests as “Magic Club, Press Club, Science Club, current events” and his ambition as “President-Politician.” Thompson was sincere about that — he signed one classmate’s yearbook: “Jim Thompson, Pres. of U.S. 1984-1992.”

Thompson attended the University of Illinois at its campus on Navy Pier; in his junior year, he transferred to Washington University in St. Louis. He then went to law school at Northwestern University, graduating in 1959.

After college, he become a prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, headed by Benjamin Adamowski, a Republican reformer with mayoral ambitions who happily pursued Democratic corruption.

In 1961, Thompson worked for the new state’s attorney, Democrat and future Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Ward.

As a young prosecutor in the early 1960s, Thompson made a name for himself as a foe of obscenity, fighting pornography and prosecuting foul-mouthed comedian Lenny Bruce, who was arrested in Chicago after holding up a photograph of a woman’s breast onstage at The Gate of Horn in 1962. Thompson pursued Bruce with a zeal he was called upon to defend in later years.

“I’m not ashamed of what I did,” Thompson said. “We acted properly under the law as it was at the time.”

Thompson argued two cases before the United States Supreme Court and lost both; one was the well-known Escobedo v. Illinois, where the court ruled it is a violation of a defendant’s 6th Amendment rights if police deny the opportunity for legal counsel during questioning.

In 1964, Thompson joined Northwestern University Law School as an assistant professor.

”He was excellent,” remembered sports lawyer Frank Murtha, who had Thompson as a teacher. “He inspired many of us young lawyers who had an interest in criminal law to continue to pursue that.”

Thompson taught at NU for five years then was tapped to head the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s office in 1969. In 1970, he became first assistant under William J. Bauer with the understanding that Bauer wouldn’t hold the office long. He didn’t, becoming a judge the next year, elevating Thompson at age 35 to U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

A record of prosecuting corruption

Thompson was appointed to the post by President Richard Nixon and worked closely with his Attorney General John Mitchell, pursuing Democratic targets such as former Gov. Otto Kerner, who had become a federal appeals judge. Thompson sent Kerner to prison for swapping favorable horse racing dates in return for being allowed to buy racetrack stock at bargain prices, the opening salvo in an astounding half decade of corruption prosecutions.

Thompson joined with the IRS to create a public corruption unit, the unfortunately-named CRIMP — for “Crime, Racketeering, Influence, Money and Politicians.” It went after figures including Cook County Clerk Edward Barrett, snared for accepting bribes. He also argued the appeal after the Chicago Seven Conspiracy trial.

“He was one of the finest oral advocates I ever watched, particularly the Chicago Seven contempt appeals,” said retired Judge Paul Biebel, the former head of the Cook County Criminal Court. Biebel called him “a master.”

Thompson also uncovered voter fraud in the 1972 primary. His staff found 50% of the votes cast in some Chicago precincts were bogus. He prosecuted precinct captains and election judges — 83 indictments in all, though Thompson said fraud was so pervasive that, if he had the manpower, he could have filed 1,000 indictments. Sixty six of the accused pleaded guilty or were convicted.

Then-U.S. Attorney James Thompson discusses the sentencing of Ald. Thomas Keane, who was convicted in 1974.
Then-U.S. Attorney James Thompson discusses the sentencing of Ald. Thomas Keane in 1974.
Sun Times file photo

Thompson’s noose of prosecution at one point seemed to possibly be tightening around Richard J. Daley: In February 1974, Thompson indicted Earl Bush, the mayor’s former speech writer and personal press secretary, for owning an advertising firm that held city contracts. Ald. Paul Wigoda (49th) and Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Matt Danaher, who lived on the same block as Daley, were both indicted for tax evasion within the same week in April 1974 (Danaher was also charged with conspiracy).

In May, the biggest fish of all, Ald. Tom Keane (31st) — the most powerful politician in Chicago other than Daley, who had worked closely with the mayor since 1955 and ran the City Council’s Finance Committee — was charged with 17 counts of mail fraud and a count of conspiracy related to the city purchasing real estate in which he had a hidden interest.

Keane, Wigoda and Bush all were convicted that November, in what the Sun-Times called “the most incredible week in Chicago judicial history.” Danaher died of a heart attack that December, at age 47.

Not that everyone Thompson prosecuted was a Democrat. In fall 1973, he took part in the investigation of Spiro T. Agnew. When the vice president pleaded no contest to corruption charges, Thompson uttered the harshest public assessment delivered by a Republican official: “The man is a crook; no question about that.” This show of independence immediately sparked talk of Thompson as a “dark horse” candidate for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination.

Thompson also led a 15-month investigation in 1975 into drug dealing within the Playboy organization, which Playboy founder Hugh Hefner called a “witch hunt.” The probe was eventually dropped without charges against Hefner or the organization, though Hefner’s secretary was convicted and subsequently killed herself.

The governor at the time was Dan Walker, an iconoclastic Democratic reformer who, in the grand tradition of political outsiders — being elected governor of Illinois in 1972 was his first and last electoral victory — had difficulty accomplishing anything significant with the office he had won.

Decisive win for the governor’s office

Party infighting created an opportunity for Thompson to take the governor’s office. Richard J. Daley threw his energies against Walker, seen at the time as payback for Walker’s opposition to the never-built Crosstown Expressway, and for his role as author of the Walker Report on the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which coined the infamous term “police riot.” Daley backed Secretary of State Michael Howlett in the March 1976 Democratic primary, and Howlett defeated Walker.

Meanwhile, Thompson prevailed over his Republican opponent, wealthy Chicago businessman Richard Cooper, who founded Weight Watchers and had the self-destructive habit of lecturing farm wives on the campaign trail that they were eating too much pie.

That fall, Thompson crushed Howlett.

Gov. James Thompson, shown at a suburban 4th of July parade in 1977, was known as a master campaigner.
Sun-Times file photo

During the campaign, Thompson married a former student of his at Northwestern, Jayne Carr. They had one child, a daughter, Samantha.

A change in Illinois law shifted the governor’s term, so it would no longer line up with presidential races. Thus the 1976 term Thompson won to become Illinois’ 37th governor ended in 1978, when he was re-elected, defeating Illinois comptroller Michael Bakalis. It was in that campaign Thompson, who had a flair for campaigning — south of I-80 his accent would change — upstaged Bakalis by riding a show horse that happened to be visiting the capital.

Though Thompson cruised to victory in 1976 with more than 3 million votes, the 1982 election was the tightest in gubernatorial history. Thompson was running against Adlai Stevenson III, the namesake of the former governor who also had been a two-time presidential candidate. Stevenson railed against “pinstripe patronage” insisting “government was for sale.”

Thompson received 1,816,101 votes, a mere 5,074 votes more than Stevenson, who filed a lawsuit, claiming voter fraud. The Illinois Supreme Court threw out the recount statute as unconstitutional by a 4-to-3 vote, the Friday before Thompson’s third inaugural.

Thompson was a vocal supporter of Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984. In 1985, Thompson personally presided over a lurid clemency hearing that captivated public attention. Gary Dotson had been convicted of raping Cathleen Crowell Webb, who later recanted her testimony. The circus-like hearing lasted three days and featured graphic sexual evidence that the public at the time was not accustomed to seeing. (Columnist Mike Royko called it “Gov. Thompson’s panty show”; radio host Steve Dahl recorded a mocking song). Thompson refused to grant clemency to Dotson but reduced his sentence to time served.

Gov. James Thompson, far right, asks a questions during the clemency hearing of Gary Dotson before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in 1985.
Gov. James Thompson, far right, asks a question during the clemency hearing of Gary Dotson before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in 1985.
UPI

Thompson made a hobby of collecting antiques and would accept them as gifts, which led to criticism. The Tribune noted that “his office was stuffed with pricey trinkets courtesy of those currying his favor.”

The fight to keep the White Sox

Toward the end of his third full term, Thompson almost single-handedly prevented the White Sox from fleeing Chicago. It was a done deal — the Sox would leave crumbling Comiskey Park and relocate to a new domed stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Illinois legislative debate was carried live by TV stations in the Tampa Bay area.

But the statehouse clock was stopped just before midnight while Thompson twisted the arms of reluctant state senators until they supported a new ballpark for the team.

“We wouldn’t let another state steal a factory, we wouldn’t let them steal The Art Institute,” Thompson said at the time. “We wouldn’t let them steal one of our cultural crown jewels, and we can’t let them steal the Sox, part of Chicago’s very fabric.”

Thompson was national co-chair for George H.W. Bush’s successful 1988 presidential race, and though rumors were that a cabinet post was his for the asking, he did not take one.

In July 1989, after months of speculation, and facing a tough re-election campaign against putative Democratic nominee Neil Hartigan, Thompson announced he would not run for a fifth term because “you can’t be here forever.” Moments before, he had phoned his secretary of state, Jim Edgar, and said: “It’s yours.”

Edgar replaced him as governor in January 1991.

Thompson left the door open to run for public office again, perhaps even a certain Oval Office he’d aspired to all his life. But he never did. In truth, he felt that, at 53, it was time to start earning serious money.

“My family may need financial stability more than my psyche needs me to continue as governor,” he told the Tribune.

Toward that end, he joined Chicago’s oldest law firm, Winston & Strawn, which reached out to him while he was governor.

”He already had ties here,” said Dan K. Webb, co-executive chairman of Winston & Strawn. “We were very close friends. He had to come to Winston; we told him he couldn’t go anyplace else. I and Tommy Reynolds went to see Thompson while he was still governor. We told him we were going to make him chairman.”

Running a powerhouse law firm

Thompson indeed became chairman in 1993, replacing Reynolds. He guided the firm through a period of “enormous growth,” Webb said, as it acquired a number of overseas offices and competed on the national scene for lucrative clients. He remained chairman until 2006, and during this time the firm’s revenues more than tripled, from $145 million to $570 million per year.

”He put us on the national marketplace, competing for some of the biggest cases in the country,” said Webb. “I would take him on marketing trips, and my greatest asset was Thompson himself. It could be to New York or Mississippi. You walk into the room, because of his friendliness, you wanted to like him immediately. He was one of our major marketing tools.”

At Winston & Strawn, Thompson would later represent one of his successors, ex-Gov. George Ryan, pro bono, directing an estimated $10 million in free legal work — representing a loss of 2% of the firm’s annual revenue — toward what would prove a futile fight to keep Ryan out of prison on corruption charges.

”We don’t walk away from clients,” Thompson said, defending the decision. “Winston & Strawn doesn’t shy away from tough cases.”

Former Gov. James Thompson talks to reporters in 2008 at his law firm, Winston & Strawn, about a critical legal defeat for his client, ex-Gov. George Ryan, whom he fought aggressively to keep out of prison.
Sun-Times file photo

He also served on a variety of boards and commissions, including the official investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Thompson was chairman of the audit committee of the board of directors at Hollinger International — which at the time owned the Sun-Times — and was later criticized for signing off on what were later determined to be fraudulent deals that eventually sent owners Conrad Black and David Radler to prison. Thompson said that he “skimmed” the reports and didn’t notice the illegal details.

”I missed them,” he said, at Conrad Black’s 2007 trial, pointing out that the documents he was supposed to review were “very long.”

Thompson retired from Winston & Strawn at the end of 2015.

Survivors include his wife and daughter. A memorial service is expected to be scheduled at a later date.

Contributing: Michael Sneed