Abner Mikva Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Politics, Values and the Separation of Powers: Conversation with Abner Jay Mikva, former congressional representative from Illinois, former appellate judge, former counsel to the president; 4/12/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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You have served in all three branches of government, and I want to walk you through those jobs a little and get your reflections on them and the interaction between them. Let's talk about Congress first. You actually represented two different districts in Illinois, one a poorer district and another, a very affluent, if not the most affluent district. Tell us about those differences and what it tells us about being a congressman, the fact that you could represent both.

In a way it was very complicated. When I first ran for Congress, I was running on the South Side of Chicago and the base of my strength was my legislative district, which was about a third of the congressional district, and it was in that part of the congressional district that I was best known. I had been in the state legislature for ten years by that time. I had been through five campaigns. People knew me. I had a legislative record. The press would refer to me, the community press as well as the Chicago daily press, so that when I moved up to be a congressman, I was an identified person. They knew my views. They knew my positions. It was interesting. That wasn't an altogether unmixed blessing. The big issues of the time were civil rights. My district had a modest minority population at the time and it also had some very heavy blue-collar ethnic neighborhoods that were very hostile to my efforts for open-occupancy, fair housing laws, and employment laws. They were Democrats and many thought their arm would fall off if they didn't pull the straight Democratic lever, but they were not happy with me as their candidate for Congress, and indeed, the first time I ran, I lost in the primary mainly because of the ethnic neighborhoods opposing me.

The other big issue on which I was wrong for my district was the environment. For instance, one of the issues that I was a leader in was keeping U.S. Steel from rebuilding its old plant in Lake Michigan and using up a big piece of the lake. It was a good environmental issue and the environmentalists all cheered me. But there were 15,000 steelworkers who ended up losing their jobs because the plant wasn't rebuilt. Ultimately, the plant ended up moving to Ohio. The environment is not a great issue for to people whose jobs depend on keeping the old plant alive even though it's environmentally bad. It's the kind of example that people on the West Coast have as far as the logging industry is concerned, where the loggers don't think its such as great idea to save those redwoods, especially if it means their jobs.

But you got elected.

I got elected. But it was nip and tuck. As I said, the first time I lost the primary. The second time I won the primary; the district was just a safe Democratic seat. At that time, we still used the straight party circle in Illinois as far as the voting is concerned. These same ethnic voters who didn't like my views who would just go and pull the straight Democratic lever on election day, and I would get their votes even though they didn't like me. It was kind of a difficult tension, though. For example, the big parade on the South Side of Chicago is the Labor Day parade, not the Fourth of July parade. Because there are so many union and working people there, Labor Day is always a big parade day. Whenever I would march in the Labor Day parade these activist steelworkers who were very angry at me would yell at me about my votes on the environment and yell about my votes on civil rights. They would make it clear that they weren't happy with me.

But then came 1972, and I was reapportioned out of that seat. For whatever its problems, I would have clearly been re-elected as long as the district stayed that way. But as a result of the 1970 census, they changed the lines and my district was cut into three pieces. I was not Mayor Daley's favorite Democrat. I could not run in any of the three pieces of my old district. The piece I lived in was represented by a very popular black congressman by the name of Ralph Metcalfe, a famous Olympic star, and I certainly wasn't going to run against him. I would have lost in any event. The middle piece was all these ethnic neighborhoods and it was represented by another incumbent congressman whose record on civil rights was much closer to where the ethnic voters were than to where I was. The third piece was a suburban piece that was basically a Republican district, and I knew there was no way I could win there.

At that point I decided to move 25 miles from the South Side of Chicago to Evanston, Illinois, and run in a new district that had been created there. It was all suburban and it was a very, very affluent district. As poor as my previous district had been, that's how rich this new district was. It was probably the richest district at the time, or it was right behind Orange County in California as the richest district; but the advantage I had was that a lot of my former constituents that had lived on the South Side had moved out to Evanston and Skokie and Northbrook and the other suburbs that were just going up. I thought I had a chance. Adlai Stevenson had run for Senate in a previous election and carried that district. Johnson had done well in 1964 in that immediate area. So, I decided to run. You had mentioned Paul Douglas as being one of my mentors. I called him up to tell him of my decision. This was in early 1972 or late 1971. He was already out of the Congress and getting along in his years. He was very concerned about my welfare. He said, "Oh, my dear boy, that's a terrible mistake. You can't possibly win out there on the North Shore with your views. You shouldn't do that." Than he started to recount how he had lost every election he had ever run in that area. Than he said, "Where are you going to move to?" "Evanston," I said. "That's the worst of them all," he replied, and rattled off the numbers by which he had lost Evanston in 1966 and 1960. I said "Well, Paul, I think I'll carry Evanston. I think I can carry the district. It's going to be close but I think I can carry it." It turned out we both were right. I carried Evanston, but I lost the district that first time and lost my seat that time and was out for two years.

Then ran again.

Then I ran again in 1974 and won my seat back by a very small margin, and then ran in '76 and won by an even smaller margin. I won by 201 [votes] in 1976, and I ran in 1978 and won. Then in 1979 I resigned to go on the court.

It sounds like somewhere along the way you picked up a commitment to principle, maybe from you mentors or your readings. It sounds courageous, running in places where your core ideas weren't necessarily compatible with the feelings of important segments in your district.

There were pluses at the time. As I started to say before, as easy as the general elections had been on the South Side and as hard as my primaries had been, when I moved to the North Shore it was exactly the opposite. In the primary I won overwhelmingly because the Democrats were my kind of Democrats. They were strong environmentalists, they believed in civil rights. My problems were in the general election, because on economic issues there were a lot of people much more conservative than I was. But on the other hand, in both districts and all the times that I ran, there was a large core of supporters who made me feel good about the process, that I was doing something important and they were prepared to support me. There was always one issue on which Richard Nixon and I agreed, and that was: it's no fun to lose. Winning is better than losing. I hated to lose but it still was a pleasant experience running because I had this core of supporters who agreed with me and thought I was doing something useful. So it isn't quite the self-sacrificing chore that some people think it is. There is a great deal of psychic income that you get out of running for public office, even when you lose.

What about the legislative side of this? You've written on legislating.
What is the key ingredient in writing good laws?

Congressman Mikva, 1970 I consider the legislative process the most fascinating human experience that I've ever had. This one [fascination] did start back in Wisconsin. I was still in high school, I was elected to something called the Badger Boy's State. It was mock legislature. It was very gender-oriented at the time. There was a Badger Boy's State and a Badger Girl's State. But I was elected to the legislature as a member of the Badger Boy's State. We went up to Madison and pretended to pass laws for a day or two. I was so excited about this idea, this notion of trading ideas with other people and compromising and working out how you get your bill to pass and how you support other people with their bills to pass. I fell in love with the process then, and that was then and remains still the part of politics that I enjoy the most. I look back on my career and the days that I knew absolutely that I was where I belonged when I was in the legislature and Congress. I felt like I was doing what I had learned how to do and that I could do it well.

A big part of that job, I guess, is listening, and then compromising and then putting it down in clear language.

Yes, and you used the word that unfortunately is given evil connotations, and wrongly so -- the notion of compromise. People think that if you compromise that means that you don't have any principles, and if you compromise you're selling out. Well that's not the way it works in a large society like ours. We are 260 million people. We don't all agree on every jot and every tittle of our everyday experience. You've got on a brown suit and I've got on a gray suit. That doesn't mean that brown is better than gray or that gray is better than brown or that we have to agree. But we ought to be able to find a way to compromise our differences, especially on the important issues of what kind of health care should we have, what kind of Social Security should we have, what should be our foreign policy. It's on those issues where people of principle can disagree without being disagreeable and find a common ground that allows the country to move forward. That's what the legislative process is all about.

And the prerequisite to that is civility. Right?

Mainly. You cannot hate your opponents if you are going to sit down and work out an agreement with them. You have to respect them. You have to have some measure of trust in them. And you have to appreciate that they are coming into the process with the same good motives as you are. If you assume that they are evil incarnate, that they are doing the work of the devil, it's pretty hard to cut a deal.

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