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Jim Craven of voting rights fame

Jim Craven, 64, Democrat of Springfield, was in a sense sequestered from full political participation during the 17 years he served as a Democratic appellate court judge. It was painful. "I had to keep my mouth shut," he laughs. And his political ambitions seemed thwarted. Much has changed since his 1981 retirement from the appellate bench. He lost a bitter contest in 1984 for an Illinois Supreme Court seat, in which he and his opponent were outspoken — perhaps too outspoken by judicial standards. Craven then went on to file a dozen voting rights lawsuits in Illinois and California, gaining fame for his crusade. Now, he relishes the rumors that he will run for governor, although it is a long shot.

Money looms as a big problem for Craven as both the champion of voting rights and as a gubernatorial candidate. An outsider looking in, he complains that bulging money coffers of familiar candidates keep others out of statewide races. Jim and Don, his law partner son, lost money on voting rights suits and depleted their earnings filing more suits. They separated their law practice about a year ago. Jim Craven says that many would-be plaintiffs don't have the money to prepare a case, and he no longer can advance thousands of dollars. He fears losing business, too, as a backlash against the voting rights suit the Cravens filed in Cook County seeking election of judges by sub-districts.

Because of that suit Jim Craven may have some Democrats mad at him. The Cook County case pressed the voting rights claims of minorities to elect judges. But the remedy came –under pressure because of the Cravens' lawsuit — via legislation approved last spring by the General Assembly, calling for judges to be elected from county subdistricts. As a result, more black and Hispanic
Photo by Randy J. Squires
judges may be elected, but also more Republicans.

Craven's first judicial candidacy was as an underdog. He had helped direct the downstate efforts to elect John F. Kennedy president in 1960. In 1964 someone had to carry the party banner in what looked like a loser campaign for appellate court. It was a surprise, he says, when he was tapped by Gov. Otto Kerner to run for the Fourth District Appllate Court seat.

Craven recalls his first campaign: "Kerner called me in and said, 'We need somebody to run for the appellate court.' I told him I didn't want to run, but Kerner insisted, so I ran. It was the damnedest campaign. I hate campaigning in the old traditional dumb sense. Appellate judges hardly get to open their mouths before audiences. I was full of all these ungiven main addresses, you know, and nobody would listen. I had a cure for every ill, real and imagined. I talked about the need for making the court system responsive, for getting rid of the delay, for merit selection of judges. I was elected much to my surprise and everybody else's." He won on the long coattails of the Lyndon Johnson landslide presidential victory.

When Craven retired from the appellate court in 1981, he secretly promised himself never to give up his freedom of speech again. And as a private attorney he has pounded the point that broadcasters should cover trials with microphones and cameras. He filed a lawsuit that resulted in cameras being allowed in state appellate courts, and he still advises reporters on their rights to gather information and attend open meetings. When he ran for the Illinois Supreme Court, he believed he would have much more say in deciding cases affecting the whole state and its judicial administration.

But Craven lost that bid in what he calls the second most bitter race in recent memory for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. (The first, he says, was when Seymour Simon of Chicago

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won a seat on the high court.) In 1984 Democrat Craven was pitted against Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Ben Miller, a Republican. During the campaign, Craven raised eyebrows by telling people that, if elected, he would vote to overturn the state's death penalty. Many lawyers felt that bordered on announcing an opinion ahead of time. But Craven said at the time that the death penalty was of vital public concern and it was unconstitutional.

In March 1985, when he and son, Don, filed their first voting rights lawsuit, he began a new phase of his career. Filed on behalf of black voters in Springfield, the lawsuit was the first north of the Mason-Dixon line to rely on the 1982 amendments to the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. Cravens and the plaintiffs won on January 12, 1987. The suit, filed in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, attracted national attention and resulted in Springfield changing from a commission to aldermanic form of government with ward instead of at-large elections.

Alternately self-effacing and self-promoting, Craven says he has identified with the disadvantaged for a long time. He was born August 7, 1925, in Greenfield, Tenn., "a town nobody's ever heard of." He told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin that as a 10-year-old he once stood at the train station and watched citizens throw rocks at nuns, and he knew that was wrong. He noticed back then that white children went to better schools. His father, James Arlie Craven, was a truck farmer who moved the family to Chicago during the Great Depression. With his accent and bib overalls, Craven felt out of place.

He married Gloria Pheney in 1951. Of Irish descent, she expects him to take the garbage out and to do his share of work. They have a "low-key" lifestyle out in the country and raise fruits and make jams and jellies. His family always sat around the dinner table discussing the wisdom, or lack thereof, in his judicial opinions. "It was good for me." All four of their children grew up to be lawyers, with his older son now working as a journalist.

As the lead attorney in the Springfield case and others, Craven says he gets one of the biggest satisfactions of his life from helping disadvantaged people get power. The legal theory is that citywide elections for commissioners, intentionally or not, diluted minority votes. Minorities could not get elected because of "polarized" or bloc voting on the basis of race by both black and white residents. The ruling was that subdistricts or wards would allow minorities to be elected. The commission type of government would give way to a strong mayor-aldermanic form after a transitional period allowing non-voting commissioners.

The Craven voting rights lawsuits in Illinois have generally been successful, either in forcing changes through court action or in effecting settlements involving, for example, referenda on whether the form of government should change. In the case of the Cook County Circuit Court lawsuit, a historic coalition in the General Assembly of the Black Caucus, Hispanics and Cook County Republicans flexed its muscle to achieve by legislation what Craven sought in court.

. . . Craven believes people
are tired of politics as usual
and want changes. He wants
to run against Democratic
party frontrunner,
Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan

There is one irony in this victory for Craven, who for years was an avid backer of so-called merit selection of judges: In Cook County he is advocating judicial elections. Craven says he sees no contradiction in this because he says there will not be merit selection as long as House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago) is in control. Craven accepts the changed electoral system to allow more minority representation on the bench.

Gubernatorial hopeful Craven believes people are tired of politics as usual and want changes. He wants to run against the Democratic party frontrunner, Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan, in the primary and against the likely Republican nominee, Secy, of State Jim Edgar, in the general election. If Craven runs, it would be, he says, a challenge to power brokers such as Bill Cellini, a Springfield businessman often called Gov. James R. Thompson's chief fundraiser. "I am proud of my enemies," Craven declares.

Both his supporters and detractors generally agree that Craven has advantages as a candidate. They say he is sincere in his belief that disenfranchised minorities deserve more of a role in government. They acknowledge that he comes across well in the age of television, especially with his white hair, studious spectacles and uncanny ability to deliver 10-second sound bites on cue. His good friend Doug Kane, a former state representative who helped to prepare voting analyses for the Springfield suit, says, "He is arrogant as hell," but Kane says most high-level officials and gubernatorial hopefuls are egotistical. "Jim's arrogant in a good way. He's a wonderful human being."

But detractors such as Cellini say Craven overdramatized the Springfield voting rights case and engaged in "character assassination" against Cellini and others. Cellini said in a recent interview that he believes one of Craven's motives for filing the case was to get revenge against those he blames for defeat in his Supreme Court race. Cellini charges that Craven filed the Springfield case to challenge the local Democratic party structure headed by Springfield Public Works Commissioner Todd Renfrew, hoping that electing mavericks from newly created wards would erode the entrenched leadership's power base. This theory says that one way Craven hoped to discredit Renfrew's faction was to paint it as cozy with Republicans. Kane and Craven have tried several times to take over the county Democratic apparatus and once came close to electing Kane as chairman of the Sangamon County Democrats.

Critics complain privately about Craven's approach. They say he is too ambitious and that he may have let others do too much of the work while grabbing credit

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in the voting rights case. Critics complain that he is too personal in his attacks and in his reactions. But Springfield Mayor Ossie Langfelder, a Democrat who has disagreed with Craven, says both sides got pretty steamed. Don Sevener, editor of the independent weekly, Illinois Times, who was present every minute of the trial, said he has respect for Craven, believing him to be a sincere fighter for minority rights. Frank McNeil — a plaintiff who is a graduate of law school and who later was one of two blacks elected alderman — agrees that Craven gets wound up but says he pursues idealistic goals at some personal sacrifice. He says Craven worked hard at organizing reluctant witnesses from the minority community, at obtaining expert witnesses, and at assisting the two lawyers from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Critics say Craven tended to grandstand each night on the news, trying the case in the media. Craven responds that people wanted to know and he told them.

Perhaps the most serious charges are that Craven does not prepare well for trial and that he meddles in ways that are ethically questionable. Detractors question his skills in the courtroom. Declaring that he's a good trial lawyer, Craven acknowledges that experienced outside civil rights lawyers who knew exactly how to proceed on an array of technical fronts were instrumental in winning the Springfield case. He also says he has talked to insurance carriers — not parties to any of the voting rights lawsuits — who were paying for the defense in several of the cases. He explained that he suggested to the carriers that they should not pay the legal fees of defendants acting to thwart the public policy of nondiscrimination. Craven's approach so bothered lawyer James Franczek of Springfield that he charged Craven in a letter with conduct bordering on the unprofessional. Craven sued Franczek for libel. But on June 12, a Sangamon County Circuit Court judge found Craven's position "untenable."

The voting rights lawsuit in Stockton, Calif., was the one that finally proved too taxing for Craven. Court papers indicate that some top-notch lawyers believed he was not prepared. The case unraveled on him earlier this year when his law firm was trimming staff and plaintiffs were bickering among themselves. A judge dissolved the class action part of the suit, for which Craven had been lead counsel, leaving him one plaintiff client. Several plaintiffs asked him to withdraw from representing them. It's a temporary setback, Craven says. Although a federal judge upheld the city against the plaintiffs, Craven feels he can win the appeal and achieve the same result with one client

Now he talks about running for governor. He says he has pondered problems of state government for more than 30 years. He describes extensive reforms needed in financing education and fighting drugs in the schools and neighborhoods. Nothing too specific, but he has ideas and brims with confidence and enthusiasm. Craven says that Gov. Thompson has overstayed his term in office, well beyond the first five or so years when he had "fire in the belly." By contrast, Craven describes himself as a "fiery Leo" who becomes angry at the thought of thousands of homeless people, of political patronage, and at the pressure exerted on state employees to make campaign contributions.

Craven says he can talk to people, listen and motivate them, voice what people fear to say out loud. He admits to authoring some, if not all, of the rumors that he is considering running for governor. He is looking to win the lottery, he jokes, or, in a more serious vein, to find a benefactor who will loan him $2 million and make his dream a reality.□

Cheryl Frank is a reporter for the Lee Enterprises in its Statehouse bureau in Springfield.

Springfield: post-voting rights

The legal challenges by Jim and Don Craven were variously aimed at changing election boundaries for city councils, school and park boards districts, a convention board district and the entire Cook County judicial district, so that more minorities can be elected. Suits were filed in Springfield, Danville, Peoria, Chicago Heights and Cook County in Illinois as well as in Chula Vista, San Diego, National City and Stockton, Calif.

The most famous case was in Springfield. Two black aldermen have now been elected: Frank McNeil, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and Allen Woodson. Woodson was elected from a white ward, which soothed the feelings of many who had contended the city does not discriminate against black people. The transition to an aldermanic form of government will be complete after the April 1991 election when no commissioners will remain on the council.

A potential ironic political twist could result from the lawsuit. For years Jim Craven has disassociated himself from some local Democratic leaders, such as Public Works Commissioner Todd Renfrow. If Renfrow runs for mayor and ousts Ossie Langfelder — one scenario among many — Craven's lawsuit, which has triggered some realignment of the local political party structure, would lead to his foe's victory.

The Springfield case was rough on the emotions but perhaps it cleansed the community, says Bill Hanley, lead lawyer for the city. He took the case hoping to head off a divisive court fight. But everything went wrong for his side, including a U.S. Supreme Court precedent that came down during the case that sealed a victory for the plaintiffs. Old wounds should be allowed to heal, Hanley says. "I think it is a phenomenon of the 1980s that people are looking for representation on a more parochial, rather than on a more common basis.'' He and others point out that the commission form was installed over 75 years ago to do away with abuses under an old aldermanic system. Any government is only as good as the people that you have in the government offices, Hanley says. He believes the whole structure of city government's checks and balances has changed significantly, including zoning, budgeting, and personnel procedures.

Michael Houston, mayor during the time the suit was pending, pushed consistently for a settlement. He cautions people to separate appearance from reality in reaching conclusions about how voters feel or how race relations are shaping up. There are tensions in the black community over how the police handled certain matters, and black people often disagree among themselves just as white people do. He acknowledges that under the old commission form, many people were reluctant to contact their representatives, who ran city wide. Now people feel much freer. "It's the major improvement from the lawsuit," but any lasting changes will have to be assessed, Houston says, after April 1991.

Cheryl Frank

December 1989 | Illinois Issues | 15

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