James R. Thompson

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This article is about the Illinois Governor. For the NASA official, see James R. Thompson, Jr..
James Thompson
Bio thompson.jpg
37th Governor of Illinois
In office
January 10, 1977 – January 14, 1991
Lieutenant Dave O'Neal (1977–1981)
George Ryan (1983–1991)
Preceded by Dan Walker
Succeeded by James Edgar
Personal details
Born (1936-05-08) May 8, 1936 (age 78)
Chicago, Illinois
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Jayne Ann Carr Thompson
Children 1
Alma mater University of Illinois at Chicago
Washington University in St. Louis
Northwestern University
Profession Lawyer
Religion Presbyterian

James Robert Thompson, Jr. (born May 8, 1936), also known as Big Jim Thompson, was the 37th and longest serving Governor of the US state of Illinois.[1] A Republican, Thompson was elected to four consecutive terms and held the office for 14 years; his first term was only for two years as Illinois moved its gubernatorial election from Presidential election years to midterm Congressional election years. Many years after leaving public office, he served as a member of the 9/11 Commission.[2]

Early life and career[edit]

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Thompson studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago Navy Pier campus, and at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his J.D. from Northwestern University in 1959.[3]

Prior to becoming governor, he worked in the Cook County state's attorney's office, taught at Northwestern University's law school and was appointed by President Nixon to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. As a federal prosecutor in the early 1970s, he obtained a conviction against former Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., for his use of improper influence on behalf of the racetrack industry. He also tried and convicted many of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley's top aides, most notably Alderman Tom Keane and County Clerk Matt Danaher, on various corruption charges. People like Keane and Danaher, the Mayor's point man on patronage were also major figures in the Cook County Democratic Party's political machine. These high-profile cases gave Thompson the celebrity that fueled his run for governor in 1976. To the chagrin of many, Thompson was very bipartisan in his attacks on corruption in Cook County and Chicago. He not only prosecuted ultra-high-profile Democrats, but also prominent Republicans such as County Commissioner Floyd Fulle and former U.S. Senate candidate, William Rentschler. Organized crime in Chicago was harder for his unit to crack and there were few high-profile cases during his era.

Governor of Illinois[edit]

In the 1976 election, he won 65 percent of the vote over Democratic Secretary of State Michael Howlett, who had defeated incumbent Governor Dan Walker in the primary and who had the support of Chicago Mayor and Cook County Democratic Party chairman Richard J. Daley. Thompson was the first candidate for Governor to receive over 3 million votes, and his tally of 3,000,395 remains the highest number of votes ever cast for a candidate in an election for Governor of Illinois. As noted above, this was only for a two-year transitional term. Thompson was re-elected to a full four-year term in 1978 with 60 percent of the vote, defeating State Comptroller Michael Bakalis. In 1982, Thompson was very narrowly re-elected over former U.S. Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III; Thompson decisively defeated him in their re-match four years later. Thompson was accused of hiding the sad shape that Illinois' economy and budget were in while campaigning, but once elected, calling for an emergency session of the Illinois legislature to address the crisis.

Governor Thompson observing a military exercise, July 1986

On November 12, 1980, Thompson, by his executive order, instituted a hiring freeze for all state agencies, boards, bureaus, and commissions under his control as governor. The order affected approximately 60,000 state positions. These positions could only be filled if the candidates were first approved by an office created by Thompson, the Governor's Office of Personnel. Suit was brought and the Supreme Court held this political patronage practice unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment rights of low-level public employees in Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62 (1990).

In 1993, the State of Illinois Center in Chicago was renamed the James R. Thompson Center to honor the former governor.

Legal and lobbying career[edit]

After leaving public service, Thompson joined Winston & Strawn LLP, a major Chicago-based law firm. Thompson served as Chairman of the Executive Committee from 1991 to 2006, as well as Chairman and CEO of the firm from 1993 to 2006. He is presently Senior Chairman. As CEO of Winston & Strawn, he focused in the area of government relations and regulatory affairs. The firm has lobbied for American Airlines, and he has previously represented United Airlines.[4]

Winston & Strawn is the same firm that represented former Illinois Governor George Ryan pro bono against federal charges relating to the "Licenses-for-Bribes" scandal during Ryan's tenure as Illinois Governor and Secretary of State. On April 17, 2006, George Ryan was convicted on all 18 counts, which included racketeering, misusing state resources for political gain, and fraud. He was sentenced to 6½ years in federal prison and began serving his sentence on November 7, 2007.

Thompson is also a director and head of the Audit Committee for Hollinger International, the media company founded by convicted fraudster Conrad Black (it is also now the subject of a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation).

Post-gubernatorial political activities[edit]

In 2002 he was appointed to serve on the 9/11 Commission, where he aggressively questioned Richard Clarke, the former chief counter-terrorism adviser on the United States National Security Council.[2] The report of the commission was released on July 22, 2004.

During the 2008 Presidential primary campaign, Thompson came out in support of former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani for the 2008 Republican nomination. He stressed that Giuliani was the only Republican in the field who could win Illinois.

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Scholarly Secondary Source[edit]

  • Hartley, Robert E. Big Jim Thompson of Illinois (1979).
Political offices
Preceded by
Dan Walker
Governor of Illinois
1977 – 1991
Succeeded by
Jim Edgar
Preceded by
Scott M. Matheson
Utah
Chairman of the National Governors Association
1983 – 1984
Succeeded by
John W. Carlin
Kansas
Party political offices
Preceded by
Richard Ogilvie
Republican Party nominee for Governor of Illinois
1976, 1978, 1983, 1986
Succeeded by
Jim Edgar