Dan Walker, a combative populist who became Illinois governor after condemning Chicago’s reaction to Democratic National Convention demonstrations as “a police riot” and later went to prison for bank fraud, died Wednesday. He was 92.
The self-styled reformer died at his home in Chula Vista, California, according to his son Dan Walker Jr., a suburban Chicago attorney.
Described as either “brilliant” or “phony” by those who knew and watched him, the Democrat bested the revered Paul Simon in the 1972 primary for governor, beat the incumbent Republican and, some believe with the benefit of a different direction, could have been the 1976 presidential nominee.
“He was brilliant, very – even excessively – ambitious,” said former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, whose first Senate campaign in 1970 Walker managed. “I can’t say that he was terribly principled; he was very bent on winning at all costs.”
Walker made his name in 1968 when he chaired the panel that criticized Chicago’s response to anti-Vietnam War protests outside the convention where Democrats gave the presidential nomination to Hubert H. Humphrey.
The report angered then-Mayor Richard J. Daley and sparked an antagonism that Walker repeatedly fueled throughout his tenure in Springfield, prompting the Chicago boss to back a 1976 primary candidate and send Walker to a humiliating defeat. That opened the door in November for a victorious Republican, James Thompson, who served a record 14 years at the helm.
After he left office, Walker took over a suburban Chicago savings and loan where he was convicted of bank fraud in 1987 and sentenced to 18 months in prison, forever categorizing him with three other Illinois executives who have spent time behind bars in the past 40 years – but those three for corruption in office.
During his out-of-nowhere campaign in 1971, he traipsed 2,197 miles – the length of the state. He slept in farmhouses and burnished his image as a populist with a denim shirt and a red bandanna.
“He connected with working folks very well,” said Freeport Mayor Jim Gitz, who went to work for Walker as a legislative aide. “ … That walk – from the southern tip to the northern tip – he had a special touch in connecting with people and energizing them.”
University of Illinois Professor Charles Wheeler III, then a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, said Walker portrayed reformer Simon, later a U.S. senator, as a Daley stooge. Although Walker frequently criticized the powerful mayor, Wheeler said he often engaged in the same kind of political games while advocating for change.
“He was kind of a phony, portraying himself as a country bumpkin when in fact he was a corporate lawyer,” Wheeler said.
His tenure was not without success. He signed into law legislation to create the state Lottery and the Regional Transportation Authority. Supporters credit him with getting minorities more state contracts, advancing the idea of collective bargaining for public employees, and opening the door to a new generation of politicians, less dependent on established parties, including former Gov. Pat Quinn, who worked on the 1972 campaign.
“He fervently believed in the power of democracy and the importance of including everyone in our democracy,” Quinn said in a statement.
Supporters say Walker wasn’t bombastic – he believed he was trying to open the Democratic party to everyone, not just machine pols in smoked-filled rooms.
But Walker couldn’t accept the idea that even as a reformer, he could still compromise. Instead of meeting Daley halfway, he provoked the mayor even on seemingly innocuous issues, said political scientist Kent Redfield, then a legislative aide. Redfield contends that a better relationship with Daley might have even made Walker a presidential contender.
“I was disliked by the professionals in both parties,” Walker wrote in his 2007 autobiography. “… Daley and the Chicago machine certainly did not want to see me succeed.”