CHICAGO — As Illinois’ longest-serving governor, “Big Jim” Thompson was a larger-than-life figure in state history, his 6-foot-6 frame dominating the political landscape for 14 years as he guided the state through recession, became a builder and left a legacy that includes restoring Navy Pier, keeping the White Sox with a new stadium and opening a controversial downtown office building that bears his name.
James Robert Thompson, who rode his success as a federal prosecutor to the Illinois statehouse and was governor from 1977 to 1991, died Friday night after suffering from heart problems. He was 84.
“It was very sudden,” said wife Jayne Thompson, her voice breaking. “I was told that his heart simply stopped.”
Thompson was a Republican moderate from Chicago, his interest in the city helping him to be able to work with the Democrats, though he had prosecuted many of them, including former Gov. Otto Kerner over a scandal involving horse racetrack stock.
Viewed as a political outsider with no allegiances, Thompson announced his candidacy for governor after leaving the U.S. attorney’s post in 1975. In his first bid for elective office, he won the GOP primary the next year with 87% of the vote and then took on then-Secretary of State Michael Howlett in the general election.
Howlett had defeated one-term Gov. Dan Walker in the Democratic primary, and the divided party proved no match for the newcomer Thompson, who got 65% of the vote.
Two years later, Thompson won reelection against then-Comptroller Michael Bakalis and twice defeated former U.S. Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III in 1982 and in 1986. The 1982 contest was the closest governor race in Illinois history, ultimately decided in Thompson’s favor by 5,074 votes following a state Supreme Court ruling. In 1986, the Democratic ticket was infiltrated by followers of extremist Lyndon LaRouche, and Stevenson launched a third-party bid that failed.
“I never thought I’d last this long,” Thompson confessed in 1989 as he announced his decision not to seek a fifth term as Illinois chief executive. He recalled that after making a bad first impression on a central Illinois newspaper editor during his first campaign, “He told me that I was as green as gooseshit, and I was.”
Thompson was far from a button-downed lawyerly bureaucrat, and knew the value of populist appeal. He opened the annual State Fair clad in jeans with a ride down the Giant Slide. He made a spur-of-the moment decision to ride a horse around the Capitol Rotunda. He was a staple of the holiday parade circuit.
And when Republicans in the Illinois House sought passage of a bill to make Illinois a Right-to-Work state, where union membership was not a mandatory job requirement, Thompson called local beer distributors in Springfield, had them set up shop on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion and invited protesting labor members to have a drink. The bill never passed.
“I never dreamed it would be 14 years; it’s never been my style to begin with,” Thompson said. “I like to build things and then never stay around to run them.”
It is as a builder that will serve as Thompson’s legacy, even as the state now looks to sell what was once an opulent but now considered white elephant known as the James R. Thompson Center. Designed by architect Helmet Jahn, it opened in 1985 at a cost of $172 million. Lawmakers named it after him in 1993.
One of Thompson’s more dramatic political moments came in summer 1988. The Sox were threatening to move to Florida and wanted a new stadium.
Thompson worked the House floor, granting legislators’ wishes in exchange for their votes. One Republican said he was granted an endorsement for secretary of state, a race which never came to pass.
Facing a midnight deadline to pass the stadium bill with 60 votes — it would take 71 after the deadline — lawmakers kept the roll call open even though midnight had come and gone. The bill was declared passed with 60 votes and a staff member used white-out over the 12:01 a.m. timestamp and wrote 11:59 p.m. in pen.
“You bet I was worried,” Thompson told reporters moments after he left the House floor after doing some arm-twisting on his party’s side of the aisle. “I didn’t know it would pass … Now we should build a stadium.”
The Sox deal proved controversial because it called for the state to spend at least $150 million to construct a new Comiskey Park, plus improvements, as well as giving the team a multi-million dollar break by allowing it to forego rent unless the team drew more than 1.2 million fans a year.
Thompson also was instrumental in the creation of what is known as the “McPier” authority, which brought McCormick Place and Navy Pier under one governmental unit. Thompson formerly taught law at a previous incarnation of Navy Pier, and saw the rundown jetty renovated to ultimately become the state’s top tourist destination. It was a product of an end-of-session deal with Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1989 that came with $150 million in state pier repair money.
Thompson also launched a $2.3 billion statewide infrastructure repair plan called “Build Illinois.” A curator of antiques, with stops at local antique shops a staple of his statewide travels, Thompson also created the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
His penchant for collecting antiques led to controversy as he assigned some as gifts to be purchased and given to him by others.
Politicians’ remembrances of Thompson started rolling in Saturday morning.
“On behalf of the entire state of Illinois, MK and I offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of former Governor Jim Thompson,” Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement.
“As the longest-serving governor in Illinois history, ‘Big Jim’ was known to treat people he encountered with kindness and decency. He dedicated himself to building positive change for Illinois, and he set an example for public service of which Illinoisans should be proud. He will be remembered and revered as one of the titans in the history of state government,” Pritzker said.
Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider said in a statement that “Thompson exemplified a state government that worked and treated others with legendary kindness.”
“He helped send a corrupt Governor to jail as a prosecutor, rebuilt the state’s infrastructure, saved the White Sox, and presided over a healthy and prosperous Illinois,” Schneider said.
Illinois Senate Republican leader Bill Brady of Bloomington said Thompson “strived to find common ground and build consensus.”
“That ability to bring people together, despite a difference of opinion, is a testament to the type of leader he was and is a reminder what can be accomplished when Illinoisans work together for the betterment of our state.”
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