How Abner Mikva, the politician 'nobody sent,' helped Washington

During his political career, Abner Mikva proved that there was more to politics than partisanship. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
In this Nov. 24, 2014, file photo, President Barack Obama awards former Illinois Rep. Abner Mikva the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Mikva, a former congressman, Illinois legislator, federal appellate judge and presidential adviser, died Monday, July 4, 2016. He was 90 years old.

Abner Mikva, a liberal stalwart from Illinois who served in all three branches of the federal government, mentored a young Barack Obama and famously learned firsthand the brazen nature of Chicago's political machine, has died.

Mikva worked his way up from a welfare-recipient family to the Illinois House, U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Court of Appeals' bench and later the White House as an adviser to President Bill Clinton. But his story about his initial attempt to get involved in Chicago politics became legendary in Illinois.

He described walking into the headquarters of the Chicago ward where he lived in 1948 to ask for a volunteer campaigning job, where the cigar-chomping ward boss asked who sent him. Mikva answered, "Nobody sent me," and the boss responded: "We don't want nobody nobody sent." That punchline became a household phrase in Illinois, encapsulating the often-corrupt patronage system of a political machine that gripped the city for decades.

"Ab Mikva was the pol 'nobody sent' but Illinois and America are better today because he defied the Bosses and rallied thousands to beat them," Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said in an emailed statement.

Obama has said Mikva was one of his political mentors, and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. After Obama graduated from law school, Mikva offered the future president a job as a clerk, though Obama declined.

"No matter how far we go in life, we owe a profound debt of gratitude to those who gave us those first, firm pushes at the start," he said in a statement. "For me, one of those people was Ab Mikva.

"When I was graduating law school, Ab encouraged me to pursue public service. He saw something in me that I didn't yet see in myself, but I know why he did it — Ab represented the best of public service himself and he believed in empowering the next generation of young people to shape our country."

Mikva was saddened by partisan rancor in Washington, according to Brian Brady, national director of the nonprofit leadership ground Mikva Challenge that Mikva helped found.

"He thought it had a lot to do with people not socializing together anymore," he said. "He had dinner and played poker two or three times a week with Republican leaders."

A friend of Mikva's told the AP about how he and Mikva disagreed publicly over Illinois' 2014 gubernatorial race, but that it didn't undermine their friendship.

"Abner was a good example of how a politician could surmount partisanship," former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow said.

Mikva, who was born in 1926 in Milwaukee to Yiddish-speaking Ukrainian immigrants, described his family's economic hardship during the Great Depression to the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in 2012, saying his father was often unemployed and that the family relied on welfare.

"We all wore the same blue wool caps and big bulky shoes and same jackets," he said. "So everybody knew if you were on relief."

Mikva enrolled in the Army Air Corps in 1944, but World War II ended before he saw active service. In 1951, he got his law degree from the University of Chicago.

Mikva was elected in 1956 to the first of five consecutive terms in the Illinois General Assembly, where he sponsored legislation for fair employment practices and open housing, and labored to overhaul the Criminal Code. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1968 and served for five terms as a member of the Judiciary Committee and the Ways and Means Committee.

Appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Mikva served 15 years, the last four as Chief Judge; Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was one of his clerks.

In 1994, Mikva resigned from the bench to become White House counsel to Clinton. He lasted a year, saying, "... I don't find the rubber band snapping back as fast at (age) 69 as when I was 40."

One of Mikva's more than 300 opinions as a federal judge challenged the Pentagon's ban on gays in the military.

"It is fundamentally unjust to abort a most promising military career solely because of a truthful confession of a sexual preference different from that of the majority," he wrote in 1993.

That particular ruling was later overturned, though Obama said at Mikva's Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony that "history proved him right."

During Mikva's tenure, the "meat and potatoes" of the US Court of Appeals in Washington was administrative-law cases, which involves claims by a citizen or company that a government agency acted inappropriately. And Mikva took these accusations seriously, The Monitor's James Andrews reported in 1993:

Even to many lawyers, the issues seem arcane. Yet Mikva stresses their importance. "It's the rare individual who isn't affected in some way by the administrative process and rules," he says. And after years of seeing how regulators sometimes behave, this longtime liberal - an avowed believer in government - says he knows "there are such things as pointy-headed bureaucrats who can be insensitive to the common people."

Steven Cohen, his son-in-law, said it was "fitting he died on the Fourth of July," adding, "He was a true patriot and had a flair for doing things in a historic way, and he did that right up to the end."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.