Kadner: Alan Dixon writes on his life in politics
By Phil Kadner email@example.com September 16, 2013 10:48PM
Alan Dixon, 86, will be signing copies of his memoir, “The Gentleman from Illinois,” from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St., Chicago. | File Photo
Updated: October 18, 2013 6:13AM
For decades, Illinois motorists would have to go outside in the snow and freezing cold in January to change their automobile license plates.
Secretary of State Alan Dixon changed that, getting legislation passed in the late 1970s that, among other things, allows us to renew vehicle registration through license plate stickers.
There are a lot of other things that Dixon did throughout his 43 years of public service in Illinois, which also included terms as U.S. senator, state senator, state representative and state treasurer.
But it’s a tribute to Dixon’s political acumen that he understood back then how important the license plate thing was in the daily lives of residents. He mentions it prominently in a new book he has written.
Dixon, 86, will be signing copies of his memoir, “The Gentleman from Illinois,” from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St.
The 347-page book ($39.95; Southern Illinois University Press) is a delightful accumulation of stories beginning with his days growing up in downstate Belleville (near St. Louis) and concluding with his only election defeat — a 1992 loss in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary election to Carol Moseley Braun. Dixon had cast a controversial vote supporting the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I wrote it myself,” Dixon proudly boasted of the book during a telephone conversation Monday. “Every word.”
It’s an easy read with short chapters, written clearly and concisely, with just enough description at times to make you see some of the taverns, halls and back rooms populated by Illinois political wheelers and dealers from the 1940s through the 1990s.
I would have liked more insider knowledge, more gossip, more dirt, but Dixon never was that sort of guy, as the title suggests.
He seems to have liked just about everyone he came across, Republican or Democrat, idealist or rogue, although I definitely came away feeling that he does not have a great fondness for some liberal Democrats in leadership roles today.
Dixon was considered a moderate in his day, although his critics sometimes claimed he had more in common with Republicans He was elected police magistrate of his hometown when he was 21 and was elected to the Illinois House just two years later.
“I didn’t raise any money during that campaign,” Dixon said. “In fact, I never raised any money for my campaigns in all the years I was in the (Illinois) House or Senate, and back in those days you didn’t have to report campaign contributions.
“It wasn’t until I ran for state treasurer that I raised funds for a political campaign of my own.”
My, how times change.
And that’s just one of the reasons to read Dixon’s book.
He basically was a candidate of a powerful political party organization in downstate Illinois. In those days, the party not only funded the campaigns but had an army of volunteers and patronage workers to get out the vote.
As a member of the Illinois House, Dixon made $3,000 a year. The Legislature truly was a part-time job back then and met only once every two years for a few months. Its main task was to pass a two-year budget.
In 1952, the state’s budget was about $1 billion a year. There was no state income tax. Today, the budget is roughly $55 billion, the income tax stands at 5 percent and the budget deficit is billions of dollars.
In his book, Dixon notes Illinois’ dire financial condition today and expresses the belief that only some sort of citizen action will ever bring it back into balance. I asked him what he meant by that.
“I mean some sort of citizens’ group could file a lawsuit demanding that the Legislature follow the state Constitution and pass a balanced budget,” Dixon said. “I believe it could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. I believe that may be the only way to do it given today’s political climate.”
But Dixon believes that same Supreme Court erred when it declared that political campaign contributions were protected by the First Amendment.
“We have to rein in campaign spending,” he said. “The Supreme Court created a huge problem with its ruling, and I think the only way to correct that is with a constitutional amendment limiting campaign contributions, but I doubt there is going to be much support for that in Congress.”
Early in Dixon’s political career, he ran into a fellow down in Springfield named Paul Powell, who would go on to become Illinois Secretary of State. When Powell died in office in 1970, $800,000 in cash was found in shoeboxes at his home, resulting in one of Illinois’ legendary political scandals.
In Dixon’s book, he says two men responsible for cleaning up Powell’s estate after his death went to his hotel room residence in Springfield and found the money in a locked closet.
They brought the money down to a car, put it in the trunk and went back to the room to collect some more of Powell’s personal effects. When they returned, the car was gone.
“They didn’t realize it at the time, but they had parked in a tow-away zone,” Dixon laughed.
They went to the impound lot where the car was towed, and to their relief found the car with the contents of the trunk untouched.
Dixon has no regrets or second thoughts about his backing of Thomas as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“He was endorsed by the American Bar Association, was an African-American replacing another African-American on the court, was qualified for the office and was supported by the president,” Dixon said.
From my reading of the book, it also seemed that Dixon didn’t entirely buy Anita Hill’s story of being sexual harassed by Thomas.
I asked Dixon, based on his years in public life, if he had any advice for the average citizen.
“Get involved in politics,” he said. “Teach people at an early age to understand their government and how it works.”