Editorial director for radio station WIND, Chicago, he was political editor of the Chicago Daily News for twenty years and is the author of five books. He also teaches social science at Kendall Junior College, Evanston.

Big Jim

James R. Thompson is running for governor. A Republican who has set a formidable record as federal prosecutor for Northern Illinois, he's 'shaking every hand in sight' on the campaign trail

A FEW MONTHS AGO a friend, driving on Chicago's Near North Side, saw an unusual tableau: Six-foot-six James R. Thompson, then U.S. attorney for Northern Illinois, was standing with his hands raised like a criminal at bay; a Chicago policeman and a squad car was nearby with its mars light flashing. It reprisal for Thompson's war on crooked cops. This was at the crest of Big Jim's war on corruption, that over just a few years' span, had given him the role of Mr. Clean in Chicago. According to one tabulation, he had put in jail one former governor, seven Chicago aldermen, two state representatives, 85 employees of the Democratic controlled board of election commissioners. 19 employees of the Cook County Assessor's office (often considered the key to Democratic financing of major campaigns), and 33 suburban politicians. He had also jailed 54 Chicago police. Small wonder then that a passerby might fear that Thompson was in trouble, maybe even extreme danger. More than one renegade cop had turned murderer in the past.

It turned out to be nothing so melodramatic. Crime-fighter reputation notwithstanding, Thompson was in trouble with the law—just like you or me. He had made an illegal "U-turn" and, when the cop stopped him he had playfully raised his hands and "surrendered" with a plea of guilty. The policeman was less than delighted, however. You can't win on that kind of pinch, so he took the easy out, settled for a "don't do it again" warning and an admonition that if Thompson wanted to break the law, please do it on somebody else's beat.

The picture of a crusader beating a traffic ticket isn't the only contradiction that will show up under the spotlight of political scrutiny. Back in college, Thompson was an ardent supporter of Democrat Adlai Stevenson when the former Illinois governor ran for President against Dwight Eisenhower. Now Thompson is a Republican candidate for governor and, if the political winds blow in the right direction, could himself one day run for the Presidency. While this earlier political excursion may earn him the antipathy of hardshell Republicans, it helps boost another of his campaign basics: that he calls 'em as he sees 'em; that neither party has a monopoly on virtue or larceny; that, as a federal prosecutor, he took out after culprits in both parties.

But more important than his support of a Democrat 20 years ago is a serious flaw in his limited political arena. He is well known in the greater Chicago area, but a political unknown downstate. Moreover, as so often happens in politics, no sooner did Thompson leave the prosecutor's office with almost universal praise than the critics started to pick away at that reputation.

Barring a collapse of the Thompson image or the emergence of an outstanding alternative, however, he had the most valuable political asset of all: the look of a potential winner. True, the darkest days of the Watergate Republican party are past; there are even those who regard President Ford as a favorite for reelection next year. But few Illinois Republicans share such unbridled enthusiasm. Their party is almost nonexistent in Chicago, and divided and defeatist in the once onesided Republican suburbs. Downstate the party is still wobbly from the loss of Congressional districts and seats in the General Assembly it once had won routinely.

Moreover, the one man who might have had the OOP nomination virtually on a party platter—Attorney General William J. Scott—took himself out of speculation with an announcement that

October 1975 / Illinois Issues / 295

Thompson was projected into politics on his role of Giant Killer. On successive days his office convicted Daley's top two aldermen and his press secretary

he would seek reelection to his present post. In the early going, only a political neophyte, Weight Watcher Executive Richard Cooper was left as an announced candidate, although state Comptroller George W. Lindberg let it be known he was available as a candidate, too. Others obviously will get into the picture at the first sign that the Thompson boom is faltering.

Thompson's entry into big time politics was an open secret for months, even though he managed—for the most part—to keep the federal prosecutor's office off limits. During that period he had a standard answer to all speculation about his political ambitions: 'The Republican party is in some stage of disarray in the state of Illinois, so I think it is natural for political writers and columnists to cast about for alternatives: and I am a highly visible prosecutor in terms of what my office had been doing." Thompson also showed he had done considerable study on the matter. He would continue: "Prosecutors in the past have gone on to political office—Tom Dewey, Earl Warren." Then, "I haven't discouraged political speculation; I haven't said T wouldn't be a candidate for political office some day." Such statements were remarkably well suited to the situation. As a federal prosecutor, Thompson had to stand aloof from politics—his double negative "I haven't said I wouldn't" was safely non-committal, but a broad enough hint to keep political rivals from jumping into the race. It also bought him time, time for Scott to make his own decision without pressure. Scott has a volatile temper, and political niceties required that he have first refusal on the nomination.

Thompson held his political posture for months. First there were efforts to persuade him to run for mayor this past spring against Mayor Richard J. Daley. Thompson could have had the nomination for the asking; it eventually wound up going to Alderman John J. Hoellen who didn't want to run but who refused to let the election go by default. Thompson took a more realistic view. He knew Daley had a lock on many of the Republican money raisers as well as an army of precinct captains, while the GOP ward organizations hardly qualified even as paper party warriors. Moreover, except for some stirrings in the Chicago newspapers in behalf of maverick Democrat William Singer, there was no reason to believe any anti-Daley effort would succeed. Thompson declined to become a political kamikase; the hopelessness of the case was so apparent that Thompson took no flak for his decision to live to fight politically another day.

That day came on Wednesday, July 2. A day earlier Thompson had resigned as U.S. attorney; now, in a press conference in the San Juan room of the Sheraton-Chicago hotel in downtown Chicago, Thompson made it official—he was a candidate for governor of Illinois. He followed up his Chicago press conference with a chartered flight to eight other Illinois cities as a kickoff for his campaign.

The giant killer
Thompson was projected into politics on his role of Giant Killer. On successive days his office convicted Alderman Thomas Keane (next to Mayor Daley the ranking Democrat in Chicago), Alderman Paul T. Wigoda, No. 2 man in Chicago's city council, and Mayor Daley's press secretary, Earl Bush. Keane was convicted on 17 counts of mail fraud and one of conspiracy to misuse his influence in the purchase and resale of land. Wigoda was nailed for failing to report a $50,000 payoff on his income tax. Bush was found guilty of 11 counts of mail fraud in connection with his secret ownership of Dell Airport Advertising, Inc., which held contracts at Chicago's giant O'Hare airport. These were no political palookas. Keane and Wigoda were both brilliant lawyers; Keane in particular had ruled Chicago's city council with an iron hand for years. He had been the target of rumors and investigations, but was seemingly invincible until Thompson took him to trial.

There were others. Otto Kerner, a former governor and U. S. Appeals Court judge, was convicted in 1973 of bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud, income tax evasion and perjury in connection with allotment of race track dates while he was governor. Convicted with him was Theodore J. Isaacs, close political friend and director of revenue under Kerner. Another veteran politician, Edward J. Barrett, one time Illinois secretary of state, was convicted of bribery, mail fraud and income tax evasion for accepting $180,000 in bribes from a voting machine company while serving as Cook County clerk. In separate trials a number of Chicago aldermen were found guilty of bribery in connection with zoning matters.

The rediscovered statutes
In a city where conviction of well established political figures is almost unprecedented, this rundown of court victories gave Chicago an unaccustomed air of reform. It also raised the question of just what "magic" Thompson had uncovered. In reality he hadn't discovered anything new, he rediscovered four laws on the federal statute books. Thompson explained it this way: "We decided several years ago that there were some laws available to federal prosecutors that might not be available to local prosecutors and that might be effectively used in official corruption cases. One was the Hobbs Act passed by Congress 30 or 40 years ago to deal with interstate extortion. At the time it was designed to stop extortion of truckers doing business in interstate commerce. The second was the mail fraud statute that predates the turn of the century and was originally designed by Congress to ban lotteries from the mails. But it was so broadly drafted that the courts have held that any sort of fraud offends the statute. The third was a relatively recently passed statute passed as part of the anticrime legislation back in the 1960's. It forbids the use of interstate facilities to promote local offenses; in many of our cases that meant corruption. The fourth is one which has always been in some use against the official corruption cases—the tax statutes—because people who take bribes or extort money rarely report them on their income tax."

In the case of the Keane conviction, Thompson's office developed a theory—unique in this jurisdiction—that hidden conflicts of interest, hidden from their fellows and from the public and which enrich them personally,

296 / Illinois Issues / October 1975

are a fraud upon the citizenry. Further, that if a mailing were used in support of that fraud that it was a viola- lion of the mail fraud statute.

Thompson also took a fresh look at an old Chicago custom—policemen shaking down taverns, it's been going on in big cities since the first cop took an apple off a peddler's cart without paying for it; over the years it's become big business. The traditional view of shakedowns was that the cop was taking a bribe from the tavernkeeper. From a prosecution standpoint the bribe-giver is just as guilty as the bribetaker. Thompson took another tack; that the bribe was usually not voluntary; that the cop really was extorting the money from the tavernkeeper. From a prosecutor's standpoint, this is a new ball game. Now the bribe-giver is the victim of extortion, not a party to the crime. With that tactic, Thompson's office persuaded many tavernkeepers to testify against crooked policemen and convicted dozens, up to one of the highest ranks in the department. A similar approach was successful in persuading real estate developers to testify against city aldermen in zoning case shakedowns.

The immunity question
Interestingly enough, Thompson's use of extortion rather than bribery was such a new idea that even cooperating lawyers were unprepared. In many cases attorneys for tavernkeepers insisted on grants of immunity against prosecution, even though none were needed. This, in turn, produced some challenges in the newspaper columns which implied that Thompson was using immunity to let some guilty people off easy who in turn acted as stool pigeons against their erstwhile confreres. This flap didn't surprise Thompson:

"It was inevitable after Watergate and after vigorous action by prosecutors against official corruption across the country that people would start inquiring into legal techniques they had never heard about before. Before Watergate the only people who knew what immunity was were prosecutors and defense lawyers; in fact, many lawyers don't know what immunity truly is."

It is, of course, simply a system under which a prosecutor asks the court to grant immunity to a key witness in return for his testimony. It gets ticklish in that the key witness, if he or she has any value, is usually also guilty but his or her testimony helps convict somebody else while the witness goes free. Such testimony is often indispensible, particularly in conspiracy cases in which there are no neutral witnesses; but it also carries the potential for abuse.

The statistics of Thompson
Thompson left office before any significant challenge to the immunity provision was raised, but a Chicago Tribune reporter, Robert Enstad, did review Thompson's overall record in office. He found that Thompson's overall record of convictions and cases where defendants pleaded guilty was 96.6 per cent in 1972, 93.1 in 1973 and 94.4 last year; a lower percentage than his three predecessors—Democrat Edward V. Hanrahan (later state's attorney involved in the Black Panther shootout), Thomas A. Foran (of the Conspiracy 9 trial fame) and William J. Bauer, now a federal judge. Enstad also produced other damaging statistics: that Thompson's conviction rate in contested cases during 1973 was only 66.6 per cent—considerably below the showing of earlier U.S. attorneys in the office and under the national average (74.9) in federal court cases. Those figures undoubtedly will be debated during the campaign. Supporters of Thompson don't dispute the numbers; they argue that Thompson took on tougher cases, such as police brutality charges and political corruption cases, even though he realized they jeopardized his won-lost record. Thompson himself put it this way: "When you have the complicated cases your statistics will be lower than when you have just routine cases. We never went for the statistics. If you go that route, your law enforcement impact will be zero."

While the statistics of Thompson's office will play a role in the campaign, the statistics that count in politics are the ability of a candidate to draw votes. Political realities came quickly to Thompson in the days following his announcement. In the first two weeks contributions totaled $5,000 in a campaign some experts say may cost upward to $2 million. He found a headquarters at 110 S. Dearborn, a block from his old office in the Dirksen Federal Building. He located—and lost—a businessman as campaign manager and signed on Tribune reporter Dave Gilbert as press aide. In time Thompson expects to add a second news person, probably with downstate experience.

I caught up, by phone, with Thompson during those early hectic days. He had assigned his top priorities. One was to get u scheduler to handle the myriad details of a candidate getting acquainted in a hurry. Second was to assemble a working staff. Third was to get acquainted with the public generally; party leaders specifically.

"I've been going downstate and shaking every hand in sight," Thompson said. "I spent eight hours in Ottawa on Sunday: I'm going to Galesburg tonight: got three county fairs next week. I've been to Effingham, I've been to Flora, I've got engagements upcoming in Belleville, Peoria, all over downstate."

Like many politicians, Thompson intermixes "I" and "we." "We've been talking a lot by phone with the county chairmen, central committeemen and political leaders down there (downstate) before we go into an area. They brief us. That's doing it by the seat of your pants, but, at the moment, we don't have much other choice. Eventually we'll have a regional analysis of issues, but at this time it's more important for the research people to be first educating me about issues other than the criminal justice system (his old job) so I know what the hell they're talking about (downstaters) and they know what I'm talking about. Then, after I'm educated, for them to present me with a series of alternatives on what a program should be. Then, when I make my choice, for the staff to research and put me into. the best position to present it publicly. That's on statewide issues; once we go through the three phase stage on statewide issues, we'll turn to special regional issues."

The vulnerability of Walker
The big issue, of course, is Dan Walker, The man whose job Thompson wants, and who Thompson thinks is vulnerable. Why? "Because, in broad terms, he hasn't given the state positive leadership. I think he's worn out this image as a fighter, because people are starting to realize that all his fighting with the legislature and everybody else means that government doesn't go forward. Secondly, he's turned out to be something he said he wasn't. He campaigned very vigorously on the notion that he wasn't a politician. Welt, he is. And people perceive that. And, whether

October 1975 / Illinois Issues / 297

Thompson also hopes to solve a problem that has bedeviled most Republican candidates in the past: how to balance a citizens' group with the regular party

they like politicians or not, they certainly don't like people who claim to be one thing and turn out to be another. And that's a recurring theme I hear downstate, especially among young people."

While the big theme is Dan Walker, it is the little themes which get a politician off the ground, and Thompson—a neophyte at the game—proved a quick study. At the Jerseyville Merchants' parade he was put in a station wagon where, as he put it, "all the people could see was an arm waving." Thompson got out and walked, in plain view of the crowd. Thompson also got a tip from a county fair goer: "This one fellow took pity on me and said I should chat more, ask people their names, take a little time with them. I did and I found out that they enjoyed it more and so did I."

The political game
He also learned a political lesson that few candidates from the Chicago area seem to absorb: an ability to place cities and counties together. He rattles off places he's been without error. That can be quite a trick even for a seasoned pro. For example, he knows the town of Effingham would like to develop Lake Louisville; even more important to downstaters he knows the lake's name is pronounced "Lewis-ville," not as the Derby town in Kentucky is pronounced.

Aside from his on-the-job learning, Thompson has tackled other realities of politics, among them money. "Putting a staff together means we've got to start on fund raising, so we've got the money in the bank to pay them. We're not going to run a deficit campaign. We're going to try every known fund raising approach: two major dinners, one in November, one in March of next year. We'll do direct mail, newspaper solicitation. I'll attend fund raising breakfasts, lunches, cocktail parties, direct mail to people in the business community."

Thompson also hopes to solve a problem that has bedeviled most Republican candidates in the past: how to balance a citizens' group with the regular party organization. In Cook County, that balancing-act may be essential; among the persons indicted by Thompson before he quit was Floyd Fulle, the GOP county chairman in Cook County. And while Thompson says one of the reasons he is running is to help rebuild the Republican party, he built his successful prosecutor's staff on nonpartisan grounds—a followup, Thompson acknowledges, to a start by his Democratic predecessor, Tom Foran. As a result Thompson, as a prosecutor, had fiercely loyal assistants with both Republican and Democratic credentials; whether that loyalty will spill over into a partisan election only the campaign will reveal.

The background of the man
At first glance six-foot-six Jim Thompson looks like a man who should have played football, but much of his growth came while he was in school (Washington University, followed by Northwestern University law school). When he gets a chance, which isn't often, he plays golf, but with a duffer's status. He lives in an old Victorian house which includes a white piano (he used to be pretty good and still can play a few songs from memory). His big hobby is antiques. He was bitten by the bug back in college days when a friend's father introduced him to the hobby; it got lost during Thompson's days as a member of the Northwestern University law faculty and a stint as an assistant state's attorney in Chicago.

Thompson joined the staff of Attorney General William J. Scott as chief of law enforcement in 1969, a year and a half later moved to the U. S. district attorney's office as aide to Judge Bauer. It was during this period that Thompson's interest in antiques was rekindled, primarily because of his vacation trips to a home he has about 30 miles north of Portage, Wisconsin. His parents, Dr. J. Robert, a physician, and Agnes, have another home nearby. (Jim is the oldest of four children, born and raised on Chicago's West Side.)

Thompson has written a number of articles and four textbooks in the legal-law enforcement field, and he keeps up with literature in the field. For relaxation, however, he's more likely to pick up a paperback novel. Before his schedule became so crowded, he used to go to New York City several times a year on vacation and he'd pack in a full schedule of movies and stage plays. Thompson has a tendency toward informality. He's likely to put his feet up on the desk while talking; he'll take an occasional Scotch whisky; drives a Mercedes-Benz.

The big question
Several tests lie ahead for Thompson. He has a tendency to be candid in his comments and less guarded in his dealings with the press than many politicians. It isn't clear, until tested, how he will react to the bitter infighting of politics, particularly when he comes up against Dan Walker, an acknowledged master battler.

Can Thompson defeat Walker?

Thompson is organizing his campaign on the theory that Walker will be his opponent; that the incumbent can beat off any challenge by State Treasurer Alan Dixon, Lt. Gov. Neil Hartigan or any other candidate supported by Mayor Daley. Walker has been under considerable fire from Daley, many members of the legislature and the press. His vetoes also stepped on many toes in recent months. But Walker has long since proved himself a resourceful candidate, capable of turning opposition from Daley and the news. media to his own advantage. It is also worth noting that Walker won the original primary in 1972 under similar circumstances—Daley and much of the press favored then Lt. Gov. Paul Simon (now a congressman) and himself considered a liberal, independent politician. Walker wound up winning the nomination by some 40,000 votes. Walker then went on to beat incumbent Republican Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie by 77,000 votes while U. S. Senator Charles H. Percy, a Republican, was carrying the state by more than one million votes, Atty. Gen. Scott by even more and Richard Nixon by 874,000 votes—clearly a Democratic and personal victory for Walker against the GOP landslide.

Does Walker retain that kind of popularity? Can the big man from Chicago win at the ballot box as he has before the jury box? That's going to be the story of 1976 in Illinois. 

298 / Illinois Issues / October 1975

|Home| |Back to Periodicals Available||Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Issues 1975|