Area’s inconsequential, influential pols recalled


by RUSS STEWART

Over the 41 years that I’ve been writing this column, I’ve been periodically asked, either in person or on the Internet, who were the "most powerful" politicians on Chicago’s Northwest Side and adjacent suburbs.

I would reply that "power" is relative. It can be used to satisfy one’s ego or one’s agenda. Being the Chicago mayor, the Cook County Board president or the Illinois governor is perceived as the apex of power, a lifetime quest of every ambitious politician, but being durable trumps being powerful.

There are two kinds of politicians and two kinds of power.

First, there are those who are inconsequential. Their goal is to win and cling to office. The trappings of power and ego satisfaction are paramount. They are "trimmers" — those who avoid taking definitive stances on issues. Examples are Rod Blagojevich, Dick Mell, Roman Pucinski, Tom Keane and Pat Quinn. Their goal is to get into office and, once there, to do and say whatever is necessary to stay in office.

Second, there are those who are influential. Their goal is to satisfy a personal agenda, a political ideology or special-interest backers. They use their office to pursue goals, one of which is not self-advancement. Examples are Henry Hyde, Sid Yates, Abner Mikva and Frank Annunzio. Then there is Dan Rostenkowski, in a class all by himself — egotistical, powerful, petty and timid.

Here, in no particular order, is my take on six politicians.

Roman Pucinski: Inconsequential. Back in the politically pre-historic 1950s and 1960s, when there was no Internet, e-mail, Twitter or Facebook, Chicago journalists had "Pooch." On a slow news day, Pucinski could be counted on to hold a press conference and produce some credible television news footage and newspaper copy. An inveterate publicity hound, Pucinski was a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter who understood the nature of "news game." He knew that if you give the media a nice, short, neat, work-free and quotable package, it gets viewership and readership.

A World War II Army Air Corps bombardier, Pucinski also learned valuable lessons from his mother, who ran Chicago’s largest Polish-language radio station. In 1956 Pucinski ran for U.S. representative in the Northwest Side 11th District against incumbent Republican Tim Sheehan and lost 95,140-76,400. In 1958, amid the "Eisenhower Recession," Pucinski won the rematch 84,045-70,621. In 1960 Pucinski beat Sheehan in the rubber match 101,224-86,305 and was solidly entrenched. He was a "New Frontier" (pro-Kennedy) vote on such issues as civil rights and open housing until he almost was defeated in 1966 by Alderman John Hoellen (47th). Pucinski then quickly tacked right, became a champion of law and order, and won re-election in 1968 and 1970.

In 1963, after Alderman Harry Bell (41st) was defeated by Republican Ed Scholl, Pucinski, who then lived in John Marcin’s 35th Ward, prevailed on Mayor Richard J. Daley to oust Bell as committeeman and anoint him. Pucinski then had his own political base.

By 1972 Pucinski was the fifth-ranking Democrat on the Education and Labor Committee, and at age 53, the chairmanship would have been his within a decade. However, believing his own publicity, Pucinski decided to run for U.S. senator, even though he had alienated black voters and had no Downstate or suburban base or name recognition. In a blunder of epic proportions, Pucinski challenged Republican incumbent Chuck Percy, a renowned straddler and trimmer who portrayed himself as a moderate Republican. Pucinski met his match. Percy targeted the black vote, got a huge suburban and Downstate vote, and in a year when Richard Nixon carried Illinois by 874,707 votes, Pucinski lost to Percy by an astounding 1,146,047 votes. Pucinski’s Northwest Side congressional seat was won by transplanted West Sider Frank Annunzio, an 8-year congressman whose 7th District was merged into that of George Collins.

At the behest of Alderman Tony Laurino (39th), Annunzio moved to Sauganash, got slated for Pucinski’s vacancy, and beat Hoellen, who in his third run for the seat decided that "Support the President" was the theme that would get him to Washington. Annunzio won with 54 percent of the vote.

Pucinski, along with most political prognosticators, presumed Hoellen would win the 11th District seat. That was Pucinski’s fallback position. If he lost to Percy, an epic 1974 Pucinski-versus-Hoellen battle was anticipated, but the presence of Annunzio, with his 1st Ward and Italian-American connections and with growing clout on the House Banking and Currency Committee, meant that Pucinski had to beat him in a Democratic primary in which every ward committeeman — and likely the mayor — would be backing Annunzio.

However, serendipity intervened. Scholl was elected state senator in 1972, so a 41st Ward aldermanic vacancy beckoned. Pucinski ran in the 1973 special election and won with 83 percent of the vote. Daley, who was born in 1902, was clearly in decline, and the well known "Polish Prince," as an alderman, was positioned to run for mayor in 1975 or 1979, when Daley retired.

Daley died in 1976. Another 11th Ward/Bridgeport native, Alderman Mike Bilandic, was chosen by the City Council to be the acting mayor. Pucinski ran in the 1977 special election, getting 216,058 votes (32.4 percent of the total cast), to 340,363 (51.0 percent) for Bilandic. It was a no-risk proposition for Pucinski because he didn’t have to jeopardize his aldermanic seat.

But 1979 was the proverbial "crunch time." Should Pucinski challenge Bilandic again? In 1977 Pucinski won his 41st Ward 17,337-5,767, but the Bilandic forces were plotting his demise in 1979 so Pucinski demurred, letting Jane Byrne be the anti-Bilandic alternative. Snow storms and snow clean-up snafus are now history, but Pucinski would have been mayor had he run in 1979.

After his 1973 win, Pucinski was re-elected four times, finally being defeated by Brian Doherty in 1991. Is there a Pucinski legacy? What did he accomplish in 32 years in office? The answer: He was inconsequential.

Dan Rostenkowski: Influential. Pucinski may have postured as the "Polish Prince," but Dan Rostenkowski was pure political royalty. His father, Joe Rostenkowski, was the 32nd Ward alderman and Democratic committeeman and an early ally of Richard J. Daley, delivering critical North Side votes for Daley in the 1955 mayoral primary.

Chicago politics is all about payback and family. The elder Rostenkowski made his son a state representative in 1952 at age 24 and a state senator in 1954. His payback from Daley came in 1958, when the party dumped longtime congressman Joe Gordon and sent his 30-year old son to Washington. By 1964 Rostenkowski was on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, a panel which sent to the House floor laws affecting every industry and special interest.

Rostenkowski was on track for the House leadership. When Al Ullman was defeated in the 1980 Reagan landslide, Rostenkowski became the Ways and Means chairman. Speculation that Rostenkowski was destined to be Daley’s successor as mayor was squelched. Rostenkowski was one of the most powerful men in Washington, but his "let’s make a deal" philosophy on Reagan’s tax cuts enraged Democratic liberals. Rostenkowski would never be speaker or mayor. His chance was to be anointed by Daley, not in the post-Daley chaos.

As chairman, Rostenkowski lapsed into arrogance and complacency. In 1992, after his office charged $55,000 in stamps to the government, the feds began an investigation which resulted in a federal indictment and a 17-month sentence for mail fraud.

Abner Mikva: Influential. A born contrarian and flaming anti-machine liberal, Mikva was elected to the Illinois House in 1956. In 1966 he sought Hyde Park’s U.S. House seat but lost; he won in 1968. In 1972, when his seat was merged into a black-majority district, Mikva moved to Evanston to run for re-election in the North Shore 10th District. Was he dismissed as an interloper?

Running as an anti-war, anti-Nixon liberal, Mikva energized the area’s Democratic base. He lost to Sam Young in 1972 by 120,681-113,222, but he came back in 1974 to win 83,457-80,597. Mikva won the 1976 rubber match 106,804-106,680, a margin of 124 votes. He won by 650 votes in 1978. He went on the federal bench in 1979. Mikva was a polarizing figure, but he transformed the North Shore from a Republican bastion into a Democratic stronghold.

Henry Hyde: Influential. In 1962, then a trial lawyer from Edgebrook, Hyde challenged Pucinski. He lost 103,677-92,910 — a respectable showing. In 1966 he won a seat as a state representative, quickly emerging as a leader. After Republican Dick Ogilvie was elected governor in 1968 and rammed through an income tax, Hyde’s path to the speakership was foreclosed.

In 1974, after moving to Park Ridge, Hyde ran for Congress in the western suburban 6th District, beat Ed Hanrahan, and embarked on an illustrious Washington career. He repeatedly sponsored the "Hyde Amendment" banning federal funding of abortions. He was the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He could have run for statewide office, but he understood his limitations.

Sid Yates: Influential. For 50 years Yates was the Jewish "go to" guy for any problem. As Chicago’s Lakefront-area congressman and a member of the Appropriations Committee, Yates brought millions in funding for Chicago projects.

Rod Blagojevich. Inconsequential. He lived to run. Enough said.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.


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