Our OTHER Mt. Rushmore: Guvs who made it to the Big House, not the White House
Born and raised in Iowa, Chicago, D.C., San Diego, Kankakee. National Guard General, pharmacist, Montgomery Ward lawyer, Golden Gloves pugilist. Two had famous political dads-in-law with classic nicknames (“Pushcart Tony” Cermak, “El Gringo Viejo” Mell). Two chaired a bombshell Presidential Commission. Three clawed their way up in the muck of local and state politics. Sentenced to 3, 7, 6 and 18 years, respectively. Other Governors have been in hot water (Matteson, Small, Stratton, for starters), but these four - Kerner, Walker, Ryan, Blagojevich - earn special note.
Son of a former Illinois Attorney General, Otto Kerner had Ivy League schooling and wed the daughter of a revered Chicago Mayor. Illinois National Guard General, federal judge and proven vote-getter, vanquishing such GOP heavies as Bill Stratton and Chuck Percy. He was tabbed by LBJ to chair the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and wrote the “Kerner Report”: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal."
Kerner’s troubles came from a shady racetrack stock deal (a recurring temptation to Illinois pols). The federal prosecutor was - oddly - future Governor Jim Thompson. Kerner was convicted on 17 counts of fraud, bribery, tax evasion, more; some were overturned but he was sentenced to three years. He spent time in the slammer but was released early due to a cancer diagnosis.
Dan Walker (no relation to this author) also had a resume that wouldn’t quit. Like Kerner, he graduated from Northwestern School of Law. A Naval Academy grad, Walker served on a minesweeper in WWII and destroyer in Korea. He worked for Gov. Adlai Stevenson II, chaired Adlai III’s Senate campaign and became a corporate legal honcho. He was tabbed by LBJ to chair the U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence; the “Walker Report” coined the term “police riot”.
Dan Walker styled himself a populist. His message was “throw the rascals out” and Dump Daley (the Elder). While “Walkin’ Lawton” Chiles had already trekked across Florida in his 1970 gubernatorial bid, “Walkin Dan” Walker’s 1,200-mile/116-day hike was a novelty to Illinoisans. Bandanna, too. It worked. Walker was a giant-slayer, narrowly edging Paul Simon, then incumbent Richard Ogilvie. His battle with Simon displayed a schism not only between the Machine and “independents”, but also between populist and progressive. (More on this in Gallery #20 - The Quinn Bin)
Walker’s troubles began long after he lost the ’76 Primary to Daley-backed Mike Howlett. The once-austere Walker was living large (Rolls Royce, 80’ yacht he christened “Governor’s Lady”). In 1987, he was convicted of bank fraud and did 18 months in Duluth (where he was famously given a trash-picker-upper stick named “Governor”). He went into “exile” in San Diego, wrote several books and died in 2015.
FUN FACTS: Walker had a catchy campaign song called "A Winner Walkin' Home" and wed two Robertas.
(The creepy clown bookmark says "Careful Kids Are Street Smart". Yeah, they don't shake down the businesses they regulate.)
George Ryan. Among the last of the old time Illinois pols. Korean War vet, pharmacist, House Speaker, his political career began at the local level and his instincts showed. A patronage master and not especially ideological, he riled ERA activists (including this author) in the ‘70s, yet earned huzzahs from the Left on capital punishment and Cuba. He was dismissive of the fiery Willis crash.
Unlike the other guys on this OTHER Mt. Rushmore, Ryan happily reached across the aisle and had a warm relationship with Daley the Younger. As Secretary of State, he doled out jobs-jobs-jobs with bipartisan generosity. A wink-wink attitude got him in trouble. Call me nuts, but having state inspectors and regulators hustle fundraising tickets to those they inspect or regulate was bound to fail. It led to Operation Safe Road showing a pattern of corruption at drivers’ license facilities. A guy like Ryan has lots of cronies & fixers; some took a fall, including Scott Fawell (with whom this author had a heated X-rated phone conversation on Election Night '94).
Indicted on 18 counts of tax fraud, racketeering, kickbacks, obstruction and more, Ryan was sentenced to 6 years. He was released in 2013. His wife Lura Lynn - a warmly-regarded First Lady - died while George was away.
FULL DISCLOSURE: This author was Communications Director for Quinn’s ’94 SOS bid. I'd stalk Ryan at his pressers, than spin reporters afterwards. Once, at old Meigs Field, Grumpy George did his thing and I began to do mine. He walked up to me and said: “You still workin’ for that f---‘in Quinn? Come work for me. I’ll pay you more.” Old school. That crabby uncle you wouldn't mind having a beer with.
Rod and Dawn Clark Netsch shootin' some stick with Christie Hefner and pals. September 1996
Blagojevich Congress '96 courtesy Busy Beaver Museum
"I never thought I'd say this, but...where's Brad Tusk when we need him?"
It’s a cliché, but Rod Blagojevich seemed to like campaigning way more than governing. And while he got early lift from “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak and “El Gringo Viejo” Mell, Blago hustled on the trail (man, could that dude work a parade route!)
If he’d focused as much on being Governor as he did getting to be Guv…who knows? If he’d surrounded himself with fewer hacks, crumb-bums and rented strangers…who knows? If he’d fired the guy who toted the “Football” and got a buzz-cut…who knows?
His story is well-known and he’s still incarcerated, so I’ll just say his campaigns were freakin' golden to political item collectors.
- Claude Walker. Bicentennial-by-Buttons: 200 Years of Trailblazers, Rascals and Felons