Jim Dey: From drama to Obama, Dixon defeat started dominos falling

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Jim Dey: From drama to Obama, Dixon defeat started dominos falling

It was January 1992 when, up to his neck in political trouble, Illinois Democratic U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon called an old political friend to ask for help in the upcoming March primary.

But the man at the other end of the line — Chicago lawyer and fundraiser extraordinaire Lou Susman — was not receptive.

"Alan, I'm not going to help you, and I don't want lunch. ... In fact, I want you to know I am going to do all I can to send you back to Belleville," Susman replied.

Later recalling that "this was my first really strong indication that my goose was cooked," Dixon went on to narrowly lose a three-way primary to Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun.

A third candidate in the race, Chicago lawyer Al Hofeld, spent $6 million in TV/radio commercials that savaged the highly regarded Dixon as a political blackguard. The war that raged between Dixon and Hofeld had allowed the underfunded Moseley-Braun, a black woman who was Cook County's recorder of deeds, to sneak into the top spot and claim the Democratic Party's U.S. Senate nomination.

Dixon's surprise defeat shocked the political establishment. Although perceived to be unbeatable, he had over his 12 years in the Senate alienated liberals by supporting a strong military defense and occasionally straying from the party line. Those seeds of discontent bloomed when Dixon supported President George H.W. Bush's 1991 nomination of federal appeals court justice Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Thomas nomination not only resurrected the issue of conservative versus liberal jurisprudence, but the battle of the sexes when a former Thomas associate, Anita Hill, charged that Thomas had made sexually inappropriate comments to her. The Thomas controversy, plus Hofeld's money, brought Dixon's 40-plus-year career in politics to a crashing end.

Dixon, who was 86, died Sunday at his home in Fairview Heights. After leaving the Senate, he enjoyed a successful second career as a lawyer at Bryan Cave in St. Louis and never ran for office again. But he remained a public figure, chairing a military base-closing commission for President Bill Clinton.

If that defeat was the end for Dixon, it also was the beginning of a shift in Illinois' tectonic political plates that would ultimately see two governors — George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich — go to the big house and Barack Obama elected to the White House.

From 1992, when Dixon was defeated, to 2010, six Illinoisans have held that Senate seat.

Since 1985, Illinois' other Senate seat, also perceived to be safely in the Democratic column, has been held by the late Paul Simon and incumbent Sen. Dick Durbin.

But this saga starts with Moseley-Braun, a politician important not so much for who she was but what she represented. She wasn't much — an eccentric, undisciplined, marginal Chicago pol. But what she represented — a liberal black woman in a year decreed to be the "Year of the Woman" — was unbeatable in terms of marketing. Her supporters wore T-shirts with her picture on it that read, "Make History."

History was made in November 1992, when Moseley-Braun claimed an easy victory. But over the next six years, she proved to be more of an embarrassment than an effective member of the world's greatest deliberative body. By the time she came up for re-election, Democrats were resigned to surrendering a seat that had been theirs since 1971.

In 1998, Moseley-Braun lost to Republican state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a conservative reformer who was serious about launching a full-scale attack on corruption, no matter who got hurt. Sen. Fitzgerald appointed Patrick Fitzgerald, a New York-based federal prosecutor, to be the U.S. Attorney in Chicago and urged him to follow the corruption trail wherever it led.

There were trails aplenty, and they led to interesting places. Ryan and Blagojevich — and a small army of their underlings — were indicted and convicted. Corrupt municipal hiring practices that dated back to the Stone Age were uncovered and prosecuted. The leadership of the Chicago mob, known as "The Outfit," was decapitated. Schemes in city, county and state government were uncovered, and fish both small and big went to jail.

But Sen. Fitzgerald's anti-corruption stance didn't wear well with establishment Republicans. Figuring his bid for re-election to a second term was doomed, Fitzgerald opted not to run. Elected in Fitzgerald's place to the U.S. Senate was little-known Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama. Using his Illinois Senate seat as a political base and taking advantage of almost universally positive coverage in the news media, Obama won the presidency in 2008 on the platform of "hope and change."

Back in Illinois, the relentlessly corrupt Blagojevich tried to sell Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder and was arrested by the feds (U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald again) for that and many other offenses. Blagojevich ultimately appointed former state attorney general Roland Burris to Obama's old post before he was impeached and removed from office. But Dixon's old Senate seat went back into GOP hands in 2010, when Republican Mark Kirk was elected to fill the post.

From 1992 to 2010, Dixon, Moseley-Braun, (Peter) Fitzgerald, Obama, Burris and Kirk (four Democrats and two Republicans) have held the Senate seat that was considered safe in Dixon's hands until he voted to confirm Thomas.

Dixon was one of 11 Democrats to join 41 Republicans in voting aye. Forty-six Democrats and two Republicans voted no.

Thomas' confirmation set off what Dixon called a "perfect storm" of opposition from Moseley-Braun, the well-heeled Hofeld and the party's liberal base that now had an alternative to the man called "Al the Pal."

"There was no better description of the factors working against my bid to keep my political career alive," he later said.

That storm didn't end on primary day in March 1992. Indeed, it blew hard for nearly 20 years, reshaping a political landscape that runs far beyond the Land of Lincoln.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette's staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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