James Thompson: Fierce prosecutor including of a governor, became one, defended one
Back when there was such a thing as a liberal Republican politician, James R. Thompson was the GOP's rising star.
"Big Jim" -- he stood 6 feet 6 inches -- was Illinois' longest-serving governor. The native Chicagoan was elected four times and served 14 years. Though the most popular governor of the past half century, talk of his running as a Republican candidate for president in the late 1970s was scuttled in part by his strong convictions, beliefs that he refused to abandon merely to achieve his lifelong dream.
"I still believe that a reasonable pro-choice position is not only right but is a majority view of my party," he once said. "But it's not the majority view of the people who control my party."
Thompson died Friday of heart failure at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, where he was undergoing treatment after being hospitalized, according to his wife, Jayne Thompson. He was 84.
"Part of his legacy being a man from Chicago -- who loves Chicago -- was that he also loved every part of the state, and spent tremendous time in southern and western Illinois. He didn't neglect them," Jayne Thompson said. "He was dedicated to building infrastructure in Illinois."
As a zealous federal prosecutor in the early 1970s, he sped the collapse of Cook County's Democratic machine. Early in his career Thompson helped put one Illinois governor in prison and, toward his career's end, he worked tirelessly and in vain trying to keep another out of jail.
As governor, Thompson spurred construction of more highways and prisons than any other governor -- he needed those prisons to house all the inmates incarcerated after he pushed through Class X mandatory minimums in his first term.
Thompson expanded McCormick Place, fought to keep the White Sox in Chicago when the team was practically on a plane to Florida, and built the $173 million salmon-and-blue Loop government office building later named for him. He also supported legislation that cleared the way for what would become the United Center.
To do all this, however, he had to raise taxes -- the largest increase up to that point in state history -- which caused his popularity to suffer in his last term, particularly after he arranged for the legislature to double his own pension.
For more than two decades after leaving office, Thompson led the powerful law firm of Winston & Strawn as chairman and CEO, bringing enormous growth and profitability, though questions were raised by the millions of dollars worth of billable hours spent defending former Gov. George Ryan -- specifically, is this being done out of public spirit or self-interest? Thompson's record is also marred by his presence on corporate boards of several companies that became mired in scandal, including Hollinger International when it owned the Chicago Sun-Times.
Spending the second half of his career in the law was an unwished-for departure for Thompson, who always saw himself at the summit of politics.
"Ever since I was 11 years old, I've said I wanted to be president of the United States," he once recalled.
• Read more of the Chicago Sun-Times story at chicago.suntimes.com.