Former Statehouse Journalist Remembers "Big Jim" Thompson

Aug 16, 2020

James R. Thompson

The longest serving governor in Illinois history died Friday.  James R. Thompson was 84  Known as Big Jim for his stature (he stood 6'6"), he had a personality to match.  

Charlie Wheeler was already a veteran of the statehouse press corps when Thompson took office in 1977.  He would continue to cover Illinois government through Thompson's fourteen year tenure.

Sean Crawford talked with Wheeler, who is a regular panelist on the weekly public radio program State Week, about his memories of Thompson.

SC: When you think of Jim Thompson and his time in office what stands out to you?

CW: Probably that he was maybe the most effective campaigner that I've ever seen. And secondly, particularly in this day and age, he was a Republican who was very comfortable working with Democrats. Very comfortable working out compromises for the good of the state. As a matter of fact, as governor, he only had a two year period in which one chamber of the General Assembly was controlled by Republicans. The rest of the time, it was 14 years in office all of these years, it was Democratic control of the Senate and 12 out of the 14 Democrats controlled the House. And so he was someone who was able to work with the other side quite well. Part of it was that he wasn't a rigid ideologue.

I mean, you look at our last Republican governor.  He put out demands that anyone who was a student of Illinois politics would know were unreasonable. Particularly trying to to neuter public employee unions.  Thompson, on the other hand, Thompson signed the legislation that authorized collective bargaining for teachers and for state workers. There was an issue during the period when Republicans controlled the House and George Ryan was speaker. The House committee that handled business and labor issues, the conservative Republican majority on the committee put out from the committee to the floor, a bill that would have provided right to work in the state of Illinois. And of course the unions were totally apoplectic about it. There was this huge rally on the statehouse lawn.  Thompson came out and spoke to the union guys and wound up inviting them over to the mansion for a kegger. 

He was a very very pragmatic politician, and he was a charismatic campaigner. One of his PR people back then, or I guess one of his pollsters, said he was one of the few candidates he'd seen where people are enthusiastic and say, "Yes, I really want to vote for this guy!"

SC: Talk about the fact that he did not serve in the General Assembly before becoming governor. Sometimes that's been a detriment to governors that they often have not been able to work well with the legislature, not having that experience. That was not the case with Jim Thompson, as you mentioned.

Charlie Wheeler
Credit Illinois Issues

CW: No. And I think part of it was the, the attitude that he came in with, some of the people, some of the older hands that he asked for assistance. He had just an incredible budget director Bob Mandeville to work with all the financial stuff. He was able to negotiate with the Democrats because didn't have these hard set opinions that's got to be my way or the highway. And some of the things that he believed in,  the Democrats believed in too. For example, public works. He put through what at the time was a huge public works program called Build Illinois. If I'm not mistaken, there are some residual parts of it still going on. There's a Build Illinois fund that, I believe, gets a cut of sales tax every year and it's still used to pay for projects. This goes back to early in Thompson's tenure.

SC: You mentioned the budget and that's something where he has been criticized, You look back and the budget basically doubled under his tenure. Now he was in office for 14 years, so budget growth is expected. I heard him in an interview say, while that was not something he was necessarily proud of, he was proud of being able to expand programs he felt helped people and that certain agencies needed that boost of revenue. You covered the budget during his tenure.  What kind of mark would you give them?

CW: I would say that, under the circumstances, they did OK. They were dealing with bad economic times when they first came in. Thompson and his administration managed to get a temporary income tax in 1983, after a lot of back and forth. And it was a bipartisan effort. Then, later on. it was in his final term when we had another bad economic state and we were running out of money. And he had asked for an income tax increase and (Speaker Michael) Madigan was willing to go along. And finally, I want to say this would have been '89 probably around April or May, Madigan announced and passed through the House in a matter of hours an income tax increase. His explanation was along the lines of, "Well the governor's wanted this for a long time.  I finally realized, yeah, this is probably a good thing."

SC: He was considered a moderate. Your thoughts on his politics and how he was able to work with Democrats and also his own party.

CW: Yeah, he definitely was a moderate, particularly in terms of today's Republicans. I'm guessing that were Jim Thompson to arrive on the scene today,  fresh out of the U.S. Attorney's Office and with no political background to speak of, he would more likely be a Democrat that he would be a Republican. And  if he wanted to be a Republican, a lot of people in the party would look at him and call him a RINO (Republican in name only). But they would say that about Jim Edgar and they'd say that about Charles Percy too.

He was conservative on law and order issues. One of the things that he managed to get through early on was a program called Class x felonies. Up until the time, the sentence that an individual would get when he was convicted involved a lot of judicial discretion. Under Class x,  certain offenses were mandatoryprison times. No probation for more serious offenses and judicial discretion in other areas was severely limited. And so, one of the results was this humungous building program for new prisons And I would say without having to worry about being corrected, Jim Thompson probably built more prisons in Illinois than anybody else since, or before,

SC: Did he leave a legacy in state government?

CW: Yeah, I think he did, The building program was was one thing. The fact that he created a couple agencies. If I recall correctly, I think Alcoholism and Substance Abuse was one that he had set up,  although that later got folded into a big human service agency.

In my mind,  he kind of set the example for someone who was from Chicago, wanted to run statewide and took the trouble to go around the state trying to understand people from other areas. And he was a real showman too, Because I covered him on a couple of his early campaigns. This is back in the days when the Chicago papers and the St. Louis papers would put somebody on a candidate for governorship or for U.S. Senate for the last couple of weeks and you just follow them around day in and day out. The baptism by fire for new reporters when they were starting out, we'd go to East Peoria. In at that time, there was a huge Caterpillar plant there.  I don't know if it's still there or if it has as many workers, but the shift would change at six o'clock in the morning and the workers would come out. Politicians would stand there and shake their hands, and then they'd go across the street to a bar and Thompson would go in there. The challenge for a new reporter was,  "Oh come on, you got to have what everybody else is having." Well, that was a shot and a beer. And so you get the shot and it was some Lebanese liquer, homebrewed, and it was potent as all get out. If you could get it down, then you were O.K. If not, you got laughed at if you choked or sputtered. But he did stuff like that.

Another occasion I remember,  he was campaigning on (Chicago's) south side.  I forget the event he was at,  but we were going down the street and there is the 11th Ward Democratic headquarters. The home base of Richard J. Daley, Richard M. Daley, the whole machine right there in their ward headquarters. So the car stops,  Thompson gets out ,walks in and says hello to the guys. And the look on their face was just amazing. It would be, I kind of imagine, what it would look would be if the pope showed up in Hades. But,  Thompson was enjoying every minute of it. And the ward guys didn't know what to do. He was that kind of guy.

Once upon a time,  he was running against Mike Bakalis, he rode a horse around the rotunda. Bakalis criticized him and said a governor shouldn't do that. Thompsn said, "Well, they asked me to ride the horse." He could really relate to people. I think that helped him. His congenial personality helped him in being able to deal with people like Michael Madigan or people, you know, with the Daley people in Chicago. Thompson was able to work very well with people from across the aisle, because he was not rigid and he understood the notion that if you can find common ground with the other side,  if you can get  some of the things you're looking for,  if they can getf some of the things they're looking for, it's better for everybody.

I don't know if this is true of Pritzker or not, because I'm in no position to find out. I doubt that it was true with (Bruce) Rauner.  I would bet any amount of money it was not true with (Rod) Blagojevich.  But Thompson was very affable with the press corps. You could call them up on an evening. You could call the mansion. The trooper would answer. And I listened to Bob Hillman do this, who was my bureau chief at the time because he covered the governor,  I covered the legislature.  "This is Bob Hillman. Can I speak to the governor?"

It'd be a few minutes and then, you could hear the governor come on and say, "Yeah, what do you want?" He'd take reporter phone calls like that. He'd come down to the statehuse press room, stop in the bureau and have a beer.  He was that kind of individual. Very accessible for the press.