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STATEHOUSE SPOTLIGHT: Changing the course of Illinois' history

LaRouche followers roiled state's Democrats in crazy 1986 race

Lyndon La Rouche speaks at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on May 5, 1988. LaRouche, who ran for president eight times, died Feb. 12 at age 96.
Lyndon La Rouche speaks at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on May 5, 1988. LaRouche, who ran for president eight times, died Feb. 12 at age 96.

If conspiracy theorist and perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche hadn’t had a couple of followers with common names turn the Democratic Party of Illinois upside down in 1986, his passing last week at age 96 would have been just a minor historical footnote from afar.

But LaRouche followers Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart that year hit Illinois like a political tornado. They dashed the hopes of Democratic former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III from holding the office of governor, as his father had done, and they arguably helped Republican Jim Thompson achieve the title of longest-serving governor of the state.

“It was stunning, depressing,” said Dave Druker, press secretary to Secretary of State Jesse White, and in 1986, press secretary of the state Democratic Party. “I don’t think anybody foresaw what happened that night.”

What happened in the March 18, 1986, primary was that Fairchild won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor over then-state Sen. George Sangmeister of Mokena, and Hart, another “Larouchie,” won the party nomination for secretary of state over Aurelia Pucinski.

Confused voters

Sangmeister and Pucinski were the picks of the Democratic Party, but the message didn’t get through to enough voters.

“Nobody thought the slated candidates had opponents, so when they went to the polls, the voters may have been confused to see two names,” Al Manning, a former State Journal-Register political columnist who by 1986 was spokesman for then-Democratic Attorney General Neil Hartigan, was quoted as saying at the time. “So they picked the more common names on the ballot.” ...

“I think it was a lack of name ID,” Druker said. “I doubt there were too many people in the public that made the connection between those candidates and Lyndon LaRouche.”

Another possible factor, Druker said, was a “huge split in Chicago” among Democrats, with Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American mayor, running the city, and his City Council nemesis, Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, chairing Cook County Democrats.

A third party formed

Back in 1986, lieutenant governor candidates still ran independently from governor candidates and were then paired as a team in the general election. Stevenson, who had been a U.S. senator and had lost the 1982 race for governor against Republican Thompson by a mere 5,074 votes, distanced himself from Fairchild by stepping down as the Democratic candidate for governor on the 1986 November ballot, instead quickly forming a third party called Solidarity.

Stevenson’s Solidarity running mate was Mike Howlett Jr., son of a former secretary of state. But Thompson rolled to an easy win to get the final 4 years of his 14-year run.

Not all Democrats on the statewide ticket moved to Solidarity. Then-U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon, D-Illinois, remained in his own party. So Stevenson’s Solidarity candidate for senator was someone with an interesting name – Shawneetown businessman and farmer Einar Dyhrkopp.

“Dyhrkopp is not supposed to win, but he could if he gets more votes than Dixon or Republican Judy Koehler,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported in a story calling the Solidarity slate “Stevenson’s ‘suicide squad,’ and noting that Dyhrkopp’s wife, Frances, was voting for Dixon. Dixon easily won.

The Democratic incumbent treasurer, Jim Donnewald, was also defeated in the primary, but by another regular Democrat – Jerry Cosentino. Cosentino kept the Democratic label, and in the fall won the office over the GOP nominee – then-Springfield Mayor Mike Houston.

A bizarre year

LaRouche himself was a font of different ideas. As the Associated Press put it, his conspiracy theories included a claim that the International Monetary Fund was “engaged in mass murder” by spreading AIDS through its economic policies, and that the Queen of England was involved in the drug trade. He also referred to Zionism as “cult nonsense” and said the Holocaust was “mythical.”

LaRouche ran for president eight times, including once when serving a prison sentence after a 1988 conviction for mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud the IRS by defaulting on more than $30 million in loans from campaign supporters. ...

Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said 1986 sans LaRouche in Illinois could have really changed the state’s history. Thompson’s running mate in 1986, for example, was George Ryan, who went on to be secretary of state and governor. The GOP secretary of state, Jim Edgar, got 67 percent that year and also went on to become governor.

“If Stevenson would have been successful and groomed a successor ... it certainly could have triggered kind of an alternative universe in terms of what the ’90s looked like in Illinois,” Redfield said.

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