Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Alan J. Dixon and the letter

Former US Senator from Illinois, Alan J. Dixon (photo at right), died this week at the age of 86. Dixon was an old-school Illinois politician, part downstate, part Chicago Machine. His focus on getting the most for Illinois probably made him an effective US Senator, but it didn’t make him loved. He was, however, part of my own political activist history.

Like most liberals, I had conflicted feelings about Dixon, whose nickname was “Al the Pal”. When he was US Senator (1981-93), I thought of him as a conservative Democrat, by the standards of the day (though he’d probably be considered moderate now, or, at worst, a Blue Dog). He was from Belleville, near St. Louis, which made him what we called a “Downstate Democrat”, meaning, basically, anyone from outside “Chicagoland” (the greater Chicago metropolitan region, including the city, Cook County outside of Chicago, and most of the counties bordering Cook County). Downstate Democrats were usually more conservative than those from Chicago or the metro region. This wasn’t always a good indicator, of course. Some Chicago Democrats were actually pretty conservative, and US Representative Paul Simon (later a US Senator), who lived in Makanda in southern Illinois, was mostly liberal by the standards of the day.

Dixon had been a fixture of Illinois political life for much of my life in Illinois, but his career began before I was born: In 1951, he became a member of the Illinois House of Representatives in his mid-20s. His career is covered pretty well in the obituary I linked to above, and also in his Wikipedia article, which goes into some of the details of his career that the obituary doesn’t.

By the time he was elected US Senator in the 1980 election, I was moving toward becoming a Democrat, but I wasn’t fully there at that point. So, I have no idea whether I voted for him or the Republican nominee, then-Lieutenant Governor Dave O’Neal (who I’d briefly met when he made a campaign stop in Carbondale during the 1978 campaign to re-elect him and Governor James R. Thompson, who I campaigned for). I can’t be sure who I voted for, because while I wasn’t fully a Democrat in 1980, I also didn't particularly like O’Neil, either, who struck me as cold.

However, I know that I voted for Dixon in 1986 against a Republican who I thought was harshly conservative (as is so often the case with people from that era, by today’s standards she probably would be called a “moderate”).

About a year later, I began lobbying the Illinois delegation in the US Congress on LGBT issues. I was part of a statewide civil rights groups called the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force (IGLTF), which had always been focused on civil rights legislation in the state capital and in Chicago. The group later worked on AIDS-related legislative and policy issues. I started working on Congress because, frankly, no one else was doing it.

I started by working on opposition to the nomination of Robert Bork to the US Supreme Court, which was a successful effort. That work brought me into contact with national LGBT organisations, and I started paying attention to what Congress was up to because of that.

By the summer of 1988, I’d compiled a rather long list of anti-gay votes that Dixon had cast, most of them in support of anti-gay amendments put forward by ragingly anti-gay bigot Jesse Helms, one of only a couple people whose death I’ve celebrated. I got angry and wrote a letter to Dixon, and his office responded by inviting us to a meeting with the Senator in his Washington, DC offices.

That meeting was held on September 14, 1988, and was attend by me, then-IGLTF Co-Chair Joanne Trapani and then-Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (no relation), Jeffrey Levi. A photo of that meeting is below. It was the first time LGBT activists had met with Dixon directly, and the first time Illinois LGBT activists had met directly with a US Senator from Illinois. That seems so quaint now.

At the meeting, left to right: Arthur Schenck, then-IGLTF Co-Chair Joanne Trapani, then-Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (no relation), Jeffrey Levi, US Senator Alan J. Dixon. Photo by Doug Hinkle for Windy City Times, and reprinted with permission in the IGLTF Bulletin newsletter (from which this copy is taken).
I remember Dixon as having a big grin and a firm handshake with what seemed like a mitt. I can’t be sure that was true, though, because I was nervous and much thinner than I am now. He began by saying, “I understand you take some exceptions with some of my votes…” and talked about listening to us. After he spoke for a bit, I said, “Senator, that’s in the past. We’re more interested in talking about things that are coming up.” He visibly brightened at that, knowing we weren’t there to berate him but, rather, to build a dialogue.

We told him about the recently introduced Hate Crimes Statistics Act that we wanted him to support and cosponsor (one of the two lead sponsors was Illinois’ other US Senator, and Dixon’s friend, Senator Paul Simon). He promised to take a look at it—so long as it wouldn’t take money from the Superconducting Supercollider project the Senate was then looking at funding. Dixon wanted it for Illinois, and though eventually Texas won the battle, the whole project was scrapped. That project was the one issue that Dixon mentioned several times.

We left the meeting encouraged—it had been a positive meeting. When we got back to Chicago, Dixon’s staff rang to set up a follow-up meeting and on November 2, we met with Dixon’s Executive Assistant, Emmet O’Neill and Special Assistant Sarah Pang. Attending with me were Joanne Trapani, Grant Thornley, the other co-chair, and our fellow Board member, Vernon Huls, who had met with Dixon’s staff in 1987 in the anti-Bork effort.

Over the next couple years, we had several more meetings. Sometimes it was only me, other times other Board members went with me. Dixon did become a co-sponsor of the Hate Crime Statistics Act, which was the first federal legislation to include LGBT people as an enumerated class, which is part of what made it so important to us.

However, because he’d voted incorrectly in the past, we continued our lobbying to make sure he voted against any Helms amendments. So, I coordinated a postcard campaign in which people across Illinois filled out postcards to Dixon urging him to vote against any hostile amendments. We also had people write letters and phone his office. With time to the vote running out, we collected signatures on a petition and I sent them by Express Mail to the Senator’s Washington office. I told his staff privately that this would provide Dixon cover with his more conservative supporters, enabling him to legitimately tell them he’d gotten stacks of mail from all over Illinois demanding he oppose Helms.

In the end, Dixon voted correctly on that bill, and many more—though not all. The dialogue continued even during his Democratic Primary campaign in 1992, an election he eventually lost to Carol Moseley-Braun, who would go on to be elected US Senator that November (and who was appointed US Ambassador to New Zealand by President Bill Clinton when Braun lost her re-election bid in 1998). I gave Dixon’s campaign staff some suggestions on how they could frame LGBT issues in ways that were consistent with Dixon’s conservative record. I’m not aware of them using any of the suggestions; perhaps they assumed (probably correctly) that they’d already lost the LGBT vote to Moseley-Braun.

I don’t remember if I voted for Dixon or Moseley-Braun in the Democratic primary, but I do know that I was deeply conflicted. Dixon was in the Democratic leadership in the Senate—a senior Democrat, in other words—and we’d established a good working relationship with his staff. This could be useful in advancing our agenda. On the other hand, Moseley-Braun was more progressive, meaning that although she’d have little influence among her colleagues, we could at least count on her vote. Dixon’s major drawback was his conservatism, while Moseley-Braun’s was her unpredictability. Because my activism was always based on pragmatism, I may have voted for Dixon as the best means to advance our agenda, but as it became clearer that Moseley-Braun was going to win, I may have voted for her to help give her a bigger margin. I know for sure I voted for her in the November election (and had one of her bumper stickers on my car) because I voted only for Democrats in that election.

After all the dust had settled, in early 1993, I met for lunch with Sarah Pang, to kind of catch up and to thank her for her support over the years. In conversation, she mentioned that I should send my resume to Emmet O’Neill, who was then working for Senator Moseley-Braun. I did, but before we were able to arrange a meeting, O’Neill died. I never again pursued a job working for a politician (or, in fact, any other political job—a story in itself, because there was one other job I’d tried for).

The years 1987-1992 were the height of my grassroots activism. They were good and successful years, and, despite the times, we won far more battles than we lost. Among the biggest triumphs was the Hate Crime Statistics Act, and I feel good knowing that I helped get Senator Dixon on board for that, and helped get him to stop voting for Helms amendments all the time.

The nature of grassroots activism is so different now. We didn’t have cellphones, email or the web, and everything was done with phone calls, mailed letters and face-to-face meetings, all of which cost a lot of money (which we never had very much of) and time. In those days, we couldn’t always count on the support of Democrats, but we could count on some Republicans. Yeah, things have changed a LOT since I was an activist.

One of the sad things, I think, is that after he was defeated, Dixon kind of disappeared. To be fair, so did I (and a lot of my fellow activists from that time). I guess we all went on to other things. But I’d so lost touch with Illinois, and with whatever happened to Senator Dixon, that I didn’t even know he’d died until Roger Green thoughtfully emailed me the Chicago Tribune link I included above. I say it’s sad because so many of the players from those days won’t be long remembered, either, except when someone thinks to write down some of the history they were part of.

This post has been exactly that: Remembering the shared history of Senator Dixon, his senior staff, me, and my colleagues. Our interconnection was brief, in the overall scheme of things, and it’s unlikely we would have ever had anything to do with each other were it not for that shared history.

You never can tell where a letter might lead.

Footnote: Joanne Trapani and I flew back to Chicago together and had a stopover in Cleveland. It was there that we found out that the Chicago City Council had again failed to pass the city’s Human Rights Ordinance (it would finally be passed in December, 1988). We didn’t know it happened until Joanne phoned home because we didn’t have cellphones in those days.

The photo of Senator Dixon at the top of this post is in the public domain.


rogerogreen said...

Always like the personal history stuff.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Me, too!