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An Appreciation of Alan Dixon

It was December 1988, and I was three weeks into my new job working for Sen. Alan J. Dixon, D-Ill., when I picked up the phone and heard from the mayor of a small town 125 miles from Chicago.

The Pentagon had just announced plans to close the town of Rantoul’s largest employer, Chanute Air Force Base, which contributed upward of 65 percent of the town’s economy and employed about half its workforce. Mayor Katy Podagrosi’s community was on the brink of disaster. The reaction of AJD, as his staff called him, accounts for one of the proudest legacies of the longtime public official, who died Sunday.

AJD’s alumni network is still going strong more than 21 years after he left office, with about 20 of us meeting at the venerable Senate-side Monocole on Monday night to toast the man and share memories. Two members of the Chicago press corps stopped by, as did Rep. Cheri Bustos. The freshman Democrat is the daughter of the senator’s long-time chief of staff, Gene Callahan, and has another connection to a long-time Democratic leader. (More on that later.)

Dixon’s 40 years in public life taught him a lot about process, and he viewed the Pentagon’s base closings at that time as opaque and bereft of public involvement, leaving those affected with little understanding of why decisions were made. Dixon wanted to bring to the decision-making process transparency and a sense of fairness.

This was a time in politics when rumors were rife about ex-President Richard M. Nixon targeting military facilities tied to political opponents. AJD never subscribed to those conspiracies, but he realized citizens deserved input into the future of facilities they depended on. Chanute closed in 1993, and even as Podagrosi had to shift her focus to rehabilitating the town, she always spoke highly of Dixon’s work.

As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Dixon went to work to change the base closing process, culminating in his selection by President Bill Clinton to chair the 1995 Base Closure and Realignment Commission. Clinton’s decision was influenced heavily by Sens. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat and his party’s point man on defense, and Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican about to run against Clinton.

Both senators knew Dixon’s fundamental view of government was key to navigating this issue. AJD always believed Washington functioned best when power was divided. This enabled him to work with the Clinton White House and the Republicans in Congress, including the aggressive House led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia firebrand who helped end the GOP’s 40 years in the minority.

Dixon and his staff visited every base under consideration for closure. He was from another era, not all that long ago but gone today, when members of Congress had amicable relationships with those of the other party.

Congress is now considering whether to implement a sixth round of base closings, and Dixon’s tenure remains the gold standard.

Dixon’s political career ended in the 1992 Democratic primary, the so-called St. Patrick’s Day Massacre. Carol Moseley Braun edged Dixon and a third candidate, Al Hofeld.

Hofeld provides an interesting footnote and connection to contemporary politics. Dixon had earlier denied noted political consultant David Axelrod’s offer to help with the re-election campaign, leaving the former Chicago Tribune political columnist to take his considerable talents to Hofeld, where he put together ruthless and effective attack ads that cut deeply into Dixon’s support. Axelrod would later serve both Clinton and Barack Obama.

Dixon went on to practice law in St. Louis, across the Mississippi River from his childhood home. His memoir, “The Gentleman From Illinois: Stories From Forty Years of Elective Public Service” came out last year, and he did one last go-round to publicize the book, including a stop at the Monocole. In one of his last public statements, he said his goal was to make it three more months to the age of 87. He came up one day short.

The Senate is a more rancorous place than it was during his time. Last fall, after Dixon’s book came out, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told the Washington Post what we all know: “The Senate that Alan Dixon served in was a much more collegial institution.”

Hoyer came to Congress shortly after Dixon was first elected to the Senate. One of Hoyer’s first campaign workers was Cheri Callahan, who is now the gentlelady from Illinois’ 17th District. It was a good political start for both.

Peter Feltman is a senior analyst for CQ Roll Call’s Regulatory and Legal Products.