Jim Dey: Former senator now follows politics from a distance
A longtime political power in Illinois, former U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon now holds the unofficial title of elder statesman — and getting more elderly every day.
"If my luck holds, I'll be 87 in three months," Dixon jokes.
But despite his retirement from an active political life, Dixon has strong opinions and deep concerns about state and national issues. Last year, he wrote his memoirs — "The Gentleman From Illinois" — and he's happy to share his thoughts on a variety of topics, both personal and political.
Dixon is skeptical of government power. He said that if he had his way the Illinois General Assembly would meet once every two years instead of holding annual sessions.
Why? Legislators with too much time on their hands write laws that cost taxpayers too much money. He recalled that decades ago he unsuccessfully opposed state legislative Republicans' efforts to move to annual sessions because he feared the size and cost of government would increase.
"I know it. I've been there," Dixon said.
He prefers divided governmental power — with Democrats controlling the executive branch and Republicans the legislative, or vice versa.
That way, Dixon said, the two sides are forced to find common ground, and extreme measures can be avoided.
"Most times, (divided government) is a good thing," he said.
Exhibit A for that proposition in Dixon's mind is President Obama's Affordable Care Act, which was passed solely by Democrats and has staggered out of the starting gate.
"I think Obamacare is going to be a big, flat flop. Nobody knew what was in it. Now it's just a mess," he said, predicting that his fellow Democrats will pay a heavy price at the polls in November for backing the controversial legislation.
Dixon said he's backing a proposed state constitutional amendment that would strip the majority party of its power to draw legislative maps that favor its candidates and direct a nonpartisan commission to draw nonpolitical state House and Senate districts. The Yes for Independent Maps campaign recently announced that it has collected more than enough signatures to put the issue on the fall ballot.
"We've had gerrymandering all my life," he said. "In my time, I was part of that system and I played my role. ... I always knew it was wrong."
Dixon said the drawing of nonpartisan legislative maps ought to be "mandatory across the country."
Noting that the state's finances are in disastrous shape, Dixon said Illinois is a mess.
"We need to balance the budget. We need to cut expenses greatly," he said.
Citing Texas and Florida, Dixon noted that "there are a lot of other states where things are great" and maintained there is no reason Illinois can't thrive as well.
Asked who he is supporting for governor in the fall election, Dixon said he had "no comment."
But he acknowledged having "plenty of differences" over the years with incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, just as he did with Quinn's mentor, former Democratic Gov. Dan Walker, in the early 1970s.
Both chief executives advanced their political careers by waging war on the establishment. Their approach is at odds with Dixon's policy of maintaining cooperative relations with fellow Democrats and rival Republicans.
"You've got to get along with people. And that's one of the problems we have today," said Dixon, who won the nickname "Al the Pal" for his bipartisan efforts.
On a personal level, Dixon still keeps a hand in his law practice at Bryan Cave in St. Louis, maintaining a premier parking place and a nice office. But he doesn't practice much law.
"Once in a while, I'll pick up something," Dixon said.
He's grateful that Joan, his wife of 60 years, remains by his side, noting that some of his friends are alone and that's "no fun."
"She's a wonderful lady," said Dixon, who said they have three children, 10 grandchildren and "a few great-grandchildren."
The Dixons spend their winters in Florida, where he plays "an occasional round of golf" and takes walks to stay fit.
"Other than that, I don't do anything any more," he said, even commenting that he "can't remember a damn thing."
A conversation with Dixon, however, belies that claim. He recalls in vivid detail the various chapters of his long political life, one that began well before he ran for the office of police magistrate at 21. As a teen growing up in Belleville, he became friends with the local Democratic Party Chairman P.C. Otwell.
"He only lived three doors down from me," Dixon said, recalling that he was Otwell's foot soldier in the neighborhood. He collected petition signatures for Otwell, listened to people's concerns and reported back to the party boss about those who needed help.
It was on that foundation that Dixon built a political career that allowed him to become one of the state's dominant politicians for a generation. Along with the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, former Gov. Jim Thompson, the late Secretary of State Michael Howlett and former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, they held virtually every statewide office that mattered. Dixon served as a member of both the Illinois House and Senate, state treasurer, secretary of state and two terms in the U.S. Senate.
He made noises about running for governor but said that office was never his main objective.
"I always wanted to be a U.S. senator," Dixon recalled.
Although he's gotten a little long in the tooth, Dixon still might be a U.S. senator if he hadn't voted for the controversial nomination of then-federal appeals court Justice Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. "I just thought it was the proper thing to do," he said of his vote for Thomas.
The judicial nomination became controversial when one of Thomas' former female employees made allegations of sexual harassment against him. Dixon's vote created a firestorm of opposition within the Illinois Democratic Party, prompting Chicago's Carol Moseley-Braun to challenge Dixon for re-election in the March 1992 party primary. Long since forgotten, but still crucial to the outcome, was that millionaire Chicago trial lawyer Al Hofeld also entered the Democratic Party primary and waged a statewide TV advertising campaign that lambasted Dixon's reputation and further divided the vote.
"(Hofeld) spent $6 million and cut me apart," Dixon recalled.
The bottom line is that Moseley-Braun won the primary and the general election, going on to serve an embarrassing six years in the Senate. She was defeated for re-election by Republican Peter Fitzgerald in 1998.
The primary defeat brought a swift and disappointing end to Dixon's 40-year career in politics. "I'd be prevaricating to say that I didn't miss the U.S. Senate," he said.
Still, Dixon has thrived in his law practice and for a while maintained a limited role in public affairs, serving as chairman of a military base closing commission at the request of President Bill Clinton. In his memoirs, Dixon described that job as an "unhappy, distasteful one."
Now he follows politics from a distance, and Dixon is looking ahead to the 2016 presidential campaign. Many people are saying that former Secretary of State and first lady Hillary Clinton is certain to the win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Dixon said that's what he heard when she ran in 2008 against President Barack Obama for their party's nomination.
"Nobody is a cinch," he said.
Fast facts about Alan J. Dixon
Born: July 7, 1927, in Belleville.
Military: Navy Air Corps, 1945.
College: University of Illinois.
Law school: Washington University, St. Louis, 1949.
Illinois House: 1951-1963.
Illinois Senate: 1963-1971.
Illinois Treasurer: 1971-1977.
Illinois Secretary of State: 1977-1981.
U.S. Senate: 1981-1993.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 217-351-5369.