Category Archives: jim edgar

I THINK … the death of Dan Rostenkowski takes away one of the great political characters.

With the death of Dan Rostenkowski, or Rosty, as many of us knew him, a giant of a man has left the political stage. That can be said both figuratively and literally. The six foot, four inch former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee towered over most members of congress in stature and in power. He was known around the congressional campus only as “Mr. Chairman” of “THE Chairman.” Even though there are scores of members of Congress with that title, anyone who was anyone knew who “Mr. Chairman” was. That’s power.

I have known Rosty long before he was called by title only. But even in his pre-Ways and Means chairmanship days, he was a formidable member of congress. Lots of congressmen get into fights over legislation, but Rosty was one of the few that could step in and settle them.

He was an old style Chicago Machine politician, as was his father. He had a gruff ward heeler demeaner at home, but could hold his own with any President or head-of-state passing through Washington. He was a laborite, but with scores of CEO buddies.

Thought more than a 40 year association with him, there are two periods that stand out.

In the early 1980s, as Executive Director of the City Club of Chicago, I was leading a long and seemingly hopeless effort to save the Chicago Theatre from the wrecking ball. On the eve of the successful conclusion of that fight, things when off track. The developers, led by attorney and political insider, Marshall Holleb, needed an Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG). These were being held up by the Reagan Administration, specifically by then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Sam Pierce.

Since he was already a supporter of my effort – politically and financially — I traveled to Washington to seek Rosty’s help with the UDAG, After I explained the situation, Rosty asked his secretary to get Vice President George Bush on the line. Rosty made the case for the UDAG, then closed with this memorable line: “And tell the President, if he can’t give me this piddley UDAG to save the Chicago Theatre, he’ll have one pissed off chairman during the next round of tax reforms.”

The UDAG was granted, the Chicago Theatre was saved – and as a bonus I got the Vice President Bush as the headliner for my next City Club annual dinner.

A decade later, I was on opposite side of the partisan divide from Rosty, handling the congressional campaign of little-known Michael Flanagan. Mike was the David taking on the political Goliath. Even though Rosty was hammered by a serious of indictments for misusing public funds and public employees, he was considered a shoo-in. On the eve of the election, Associated Press lead off with a headline that Rosty was in a “cake walk” election. I told former WLS-TV political reporter Andy Shaw that we would take it by 10 points. No one took me serious. Flanagan won by ten.

Rosty’s defeat also exposed a bit of the unholy bipartisan central power structure in Illinois. On the morning after the election, Governor Jim Edgar hosted is traditional Republican victors breakfast. With Flanagan behind him on the stage, the Guv lamented the defeat of his “good friend” Dan Rostenkowski. But why not? Edgar was openly supporting Rosty throughout the campaign. Edgar would eventually aid and abet the return of that seat to the Democrats in the person of Rod Blagojevich, followed by Rahm Emmanual.

To the surprise of many, even after his election defeat, Rosty was as friendly to me as ever. That would seem impossible in today’s politics-as-blood-sport culture. In those days, partisanship was more like a boxing match. You were expected to fight hard to win partisan battles, but when the bell rang, the dukes were dropped and civility resumed. Rosty understand that culture, and he lived it.

For good or bad, Rostenkowski was the personification of the Chicago Machine. He was partisan. He loved “pork.” He was tough. He didn’t always play by the rules.

No matter if you were working with him, or against him, you had to love the guy. He will be missed.

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