Ralph Capparelli, longtime ‘friendly’ Northwest Side state legislator, dead at 96

He was a top lieutenant to then Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan, but he also vacationed with Republican state Rep. Roger McAuliffe, a buddy who represented a neighboring district.

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State Rep. Ralph Capparelli in 2004, with Rosa DiFronzo, left, who was being honored for helping stop a senior citizen from being defrauded.

State Rep. Ralph Capparelli in 2004, with Rosa DiFronzo, left, who was being honored for helping stop a senior citizen from being defrauded.

Sun-Times archives

Ralph Capparelli spent more than three decades in the Illinois House, carving out a reputation as a loyal Democrat who got along equally well with Republicans.

He was a top lieutenant to then Democratic Speaker Mike Madigan, but he also vacationed with Republican state Rep. Roger McAuliffe, a buddy who represented a neighboring district.

“If I win, I want to be friendly. If I lose, I want to be friendly,” Mr. Capparelli once told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter.

He won more than he lost, holding his Northwest Side House seat for 34 years, a long tenure that earned him the title ‘dean’ of the Illinois House.

Mr. Capparelli, 96, died Dec. 31.

“My father valued his family first and cherished his many genuine friends. Overall, I believe he thought simply serving the people effectively was his greatest achievement,” his son, Cary, said. “His favorite word was ‘integrity,’ and he served with integrity.”

A longtime resident of the Edison Park neighborhood, Mr. Capparelli was first elected to the Illinois House in 1970.

Ralph Capparelli in 1980.

Ralph Capparelli in 1980.

Sun-Times archives

A lifelong member of the Democratic Party, he served as deputy majority leader under Madigan from 1989 to 2004. He was a part of the longtime speaker’s leadership team from the beginning — acting as majority whip from Madigan’s first term as speaker in 1983 until 1989.

“Ralph Capparelli was essential to the success of Speaker Madigan’s leadership before retiring from the General Assembly,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown. “He was an important part of the Speaker’s leadership team and was a man who devoted a lot of time to make Illinois a better place to live.”

Mr. Capparelli joined the U.S. Navy in 1942 at age 18. He fought in the ‘Battle of Tinian’ during World War II and helped to oversee that island after U.S. forces beat the Japanese there. Mr. Capparelli was honorably discharged from the Navy after three years and earned a Battle Star for his service.

After the war, Mr. Capparelli earned a bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University and was a teacher before he was elected to the state Legislature. He married in 1952.

Mr. Capparelli also served as the Democratic committeeman for Chicago’s 41st Ward from 1992 to 2008. Jim Sachay, former secretary of the ward organization, said that his friend of 50 years “fought very hard for his district and didn’t cower to leadership when it came to his district.”

Ralph C. Capparelli, Deputy Democratic Leader, in 2003

Ralph C. Capparelli, Deputy Democratic Leader, in 2003

Sun-Times archives

Near the beginning of Mr. Capparelli’s legislative career, Mayor Richard J. Daley asked him to vote for a tax increase.But the young legislator thought it would hurt his constituents, and he threatened to resign rather than vote for the legislation, Sachay said.

Though he was a Democrat, Mr. Capparelli was conservative on most social issues, making him a good fit for his Northwest Side district, home to many police officers, firefighters and other city workers.

His friendships with Republicans occasionally proved beneficial for the GOP. Long a proponent of gambling expansion, Mr. Capparelli was instrumental in pushing through 1999 legislation to approve a gaming license for a then-controversial casino in Rosemont, which bordered his district.

The license — which had long been sought by Rosemont Mayor Donald Stephens, a Republican powerhouse — was later revoked by the Illinois Gaming Board, and the casino was never built.

Mr. Capparelli had what’s known in Chicago politics as a ‘nonaggression pact’ with McAuliffe, but that ended after the Republican died in a 1996 boating accident, and McAuliffe’s son took over the GOP House seat.

After the 2002 legislative redistricting, Mr. Capparelli and Republican state Rep. Michael McAuliffe wound up living in the same district.They ran against one another in 2004, and McAuliffe won.

“This never would have happened if his father was alive,” Mr. Capparelli said at the time.

State Rep. Ralph Capparelli during a reception to celebrate Italian National Day at the Newberry Library in 2004.

State Rep. Ralph Capparelli during a reception to celebrate Italian National Day at the Newberry Library in 2004.

John J. Kim/Sun-Times file

In his retirement, Mr. Capparelli benefitted from a loophole in a 1998 campaign finance reform law that limited what Illinois politicians could do with the money they raised for their campaigns. But the reform exempted money raised before June 30, 1998.

That exemption allowed Mr. Capparelli to take $583,357 from his campaign fund between 2006 and 2010 — the most of any politician who benefited from the loophole — and use it for whatever he wanted as long as he paid taxes on it, which Mr. Capparelli assured a Sun-Times columnist that he did.

“What else was I supposed to do? Keep running?” Capparelli said when columnist Mark Brown questioned him about the practice in 2019.

Asked why he didn’t donate the money to charity, Mr. Capparelli quipped, “I’m the charity.”

In addition to his son, Mr. Capparelli is survived by his wife of 68 years, Cordelia, and a daughter, Valerie. Funeral services have been held.

“It was well attended despite the fact we never made a formal announcement,” his son, Cary, said.

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