Reformer Mikva Sees His Protégés Succeed

Posted February 4, 2008 at 6:54pm

Primary day can be predictable for Chicago Democrats, whose slate typically resembles a political family tree branching back to the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, the local party’s political Abraham and father of the current mayor.

But as Land of Lincoln voters cast their ballots for federal candidates today, dominating the Democratic spotlight will be the political legacy of longtime House of Daley agitator Abner Mikva, a former Member of Congress whose two protégés, presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and consultant Dan Seals, likely will walk away with wide victories.

Obama, the popular home-state Senator, is expected to easily best Chicagoland native Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic presidential primary. Seals, who narrowly lost to Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) in the previous cycle, is favored over former Clinton White House official Jay Footlik (D), whose solid foreign policy credentials have failed to compete with Seals’ star power, in the 10th district Democratic primary.

Black anti-establishment Democrats with deep roots in Mikva’s Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, Seals and Obama have turned for advice periodically during the past decade to the independent-minded 82-year-old liberal. Mikva was the last Democrat to hold Kirk’s North Shore seat and was an early civil rights supporter and frequent critic of the Windy City’s endemic Democratic patronage structure.

The Daily Calumet, a now defunct right-wing newspaper popular with South Side blue-collar workers, once referred to him in print as “Martin Luther Mikva” after the then-Illinois Assemblyman urged the civil rights leader to come to Chicago. King signed a copy of the editorial for him.

“It’s one of my prized possessions,” Mikva told Roll Call in a recent interview.

‘I Came Into Politics the Wrong Way’

Mikva settled with his wife, Zoe, in the South Side intellectual enclave of Hyde Park while he was attending the University of Chicago Law School during the late 1940s. In 1956, Mikva, by then in private practice, beat out a hand-picked party loyalist in a three-way primary for a state Assembly seat, the first of many confrontations between him and the newly elected mayor, Daley.

“I came into politics the wrong way,” Mikva said. “You’re supposed to come in as a precinct captain and work your way up; as far as the old man — Mayor Daley — was concerned … I wasn’t a good Democrat.”

After five terms in Springfield, Mikva again broke with the party establishment a decade later when he took on 84-year-old Rep. Barratt O’Hara (D) in 1966. Mikva lost the Democratic primary but ran again for O’Hara’s seat and won in 1968, an upset that exacerbated a “friction [that] continued all through [Daley’s] life,” Mikva recalled.

“Most of the things I was pushing in Congress he was for anyway, and things he was pushing Congress to do I was for,” he said. “Our fights were mostly about patronage and ethics.”

But after Mikva’s first two terms in Congress, the Daley machine had exacted its revenge for O’Hara’s 1968 defeat, redrawing Mikva’s district with his defeat in mind. Out of work after the 1972 elections, Mikva moved north to suburban Evanston, on the outer boundaries of the Democratic machine’s direct reach, where Daley “never really had much influence,” Mikva said.

Mikva narrowly won the North Side seat in 1974, serving nearly three terms before President Jimmy Carter appointed him to a federal judgeship in 1979.

He served 15 years on the bench before being named Bill Clinton’s White House counsel in 1994, joining fellow North Siders Footlik and political aide Rahm Emanuel in the administration. Mikva left after a year, returning to Chicago and eventually teaching law school at his alma mater, the University of Chicago.

“At that time I was crowding 70 and I was getting very tired,” Mikva said. “It’s a tough job.”

Also on the law school faculty at the time was Mikva’s young state Senator, Barack Obama, a familiar name to the former judge. While still on the bench, Mikva asked a mutual friend if Obama, who was then Harvard Law Review president, was interested in being his clerk.

“He didn’t want an interview,” Mikva said. “She said [Obama] was going back to Chicago to run for office.”

While at the law school, Mikva and Obama spoke frequently about politics. By that point, the two already were kindred spirits: Obama clashed with the Democratic establishment during his first state Senate run, when he wouldn’t step aside for a Daley loyalist. Four years later, Obama challenged another well-established politician, Rep. Bobby Rush (D) in 2000, and lost.

Mentor and Agitator

After Obama’s loss to Rush, Mikva said Obama began making inroads with the party establishment in Springfield, alliances that would become invaluable during the perceived outsider’s U.S. Senate run three years later. Obama won the loyalty of now-state Senate President Emil Jones (D) and other establishment black politicians. And when Obama decided to make a run for Senate in 2004, Mikva recalled how he and Obama discussed his steep odds in the primary, a race that would include multimillionaire Blair Hull (D) and machine candidate Dan Hynes (D).

Luck, Mikva said, played no small role in Obama’s surprising primary win.

“Here he was with two very well-financed, popular politicians, both white and both supported by the establishment in one form or another,” he said. “And here he was the outsider pushing new ideas.”

Meanwhile, while Obama courted establishment support in Springfield, Mikva headed up the 2002 Congressional campaign of former state Rep. Nancy Kaszak, who was squaring off in a Democratic primary against Emanuel, the former Clinton administration aide and a longtime Daley ally.

Emanuel easily defeated Kaszak in the 2002 primary. Four years later, Mikva — then heavily involved in Seals’ campaign — personally chided Emanuel, then the chairman of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for not helping Seals, who lost to Kirk by 7 points in 2006.

“Rahm didn’t do what I thought he should have done for Dan,” Mikva said. “I just wanted [Emanuel] to acknowledge that Dan was a viable candidate. He got the same vote that [2006 Democratic nominee] Tammy Duckworth did [in the suburban 6th district] and frankly it’s a much more doable district.”

Emanuel did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article.

An Illinois Democratic source said Mikva’s tell-it-like-it-is approach is the hallmark of his second career as a one-man, anti-establishment boot camp. The well-placed source described Mikva as a “fatherly figure” and “the Democratic conscience of Chicago, a touchstone for the reform and liberal wing of the Democratic party.”

“Abner’s never one to not speak his mind,” the source said. “A lot of people that have come out against [the Daleys] have come from his camp.”

“But with that said, he works with a lot of people,” the source continued. “He has tremendous reach.”

Still Knocking on Doors

So with Obama off to Washington, D.C., in early 2005, the former federal judge soon befriended another ambitious potential Mikva-in-training. Through a mutual friend, Mikva began speaking with politically green Hyde Park native Seals, who then was considering a run against Kirk ahead of the 2006 elections.

Seals required a little more polish, Mikva suggested. Although Seals, a University of Chicago MBA, had a firm grasp on policy, Kirk was a savvy, well-liked incumbent. Seals lost narrowly, but like Obama after his 2000 defeat, Mikva said Seals has worked aggressively on his delivery since his 2006 defeat.

“When I heard him the first time in his current campaign he was fantastic, he’s grown so much,” Mikva said. “His demeanor, self confidence, his ability to field questions — he’s grown by leaps and bounds.”

Seals said he and Mikva became fast friends and hold regular strategy sessions on his current bid. Mikva was one of Seals’ first endorsements in the previous cycle and encouraged Seals to target younger voters, a tactic now being used by Obama’s presidential campaign.

“He’s the person I go to for advice,” Seals said. “He’s a sounding board for me … I say, here’s what’s going on, what do you think about this?”

And despite Mikva’s advanced age, Seals said his mentor still can’t kick his activist ways.

“He’s not the type of guy that likes to stay inside,” Seals said. “He’ll go canvassing, he’ll go knock on doors.”