Remembering Abner Mikva, who built Evanston's Democratic Party

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Abner Mikva, photographed in 2009 - AP PHOTO/M. SPENCER GREEN, FILE
  • AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File
  • Abner Mikva, photographed in 2009
Four thousand years ago, when I was a college sophomore, I was sitting around my dorm room, playing air guitar to Jimi Hendrix.

A bong may have been been involved. Hey, man, it was the 70s.

In the middle of my Hendrix solo, I got a call from my mother, saying: "Benny, you got to catch the next bus to Evanston!"

I'd just turned 18 and, as such, was finally eligible to vote. My mother wanted to make sure I came home to cast my ballot for Abner Mikva.

This was 1974, and Mikva was relatively new to Evanston, having made his name as a state representative and congressman from Hyde Park.

In the early 1970s, Mayor Daley redistricted Mikva into the same congressional district as Ralph Metcalfe.

Rather than be the white guy who runs against a black incumbent in a mostly black district, Mikva moved to Evanston—as I recall he bought a house on Michigan Avenue.

Almost immediately he took the tricks of the political trade he'd learned in Chicago and used them to build a bold and aggressive Democratic Party in Evanston.

Back then Evanston was transforming from Republican to Democrat. And my mother wanted to make sure Mikva got every vote he needed—'cause it would take every vote he could get—to beat those damn Republicans.

Pardon me for the partisanship. But that's how many people from my mother's generation viewed the world.

Politically speaking, my mom and Mikva were like two peas in a pod—they'd grown up in the Depression, worshiping FDR.

Mikva became a lawyer before entering politics. My mother was a public school teacher, though I always thought she'd make one helluva alderman.  I'll tell you one thing: she'd give old Rahm a piece of her mind for closing those schools and mental health clinics, that's for sure.

Anyway, I've been reliving these ancient memories since word broke that Mikva died of cancer on Monday, July 4th. He was 90 years old.

I know I can't be the only baby boomer out of Evanston who got one of those calls from mom back in the 70s. I'm sure there are many here among us who got herded home from college by some Depression-era parent to vote for Mikva.

'Cause my mom was right: Mikva needed every vote he got to scrape by Samuel Young and become the first Democratic congressman out of Evanston.

He turned out to be a classic good-government, anti-Vietnam War, pro-civil rights, fund-our-schools, liberal Democrat. We could use a lot more like him today.

In 1978, Mikva left Congress when President Carter appointed him to the federal court of appeals in Washington, D.C. From that point on, he became Judge Mikva.

In 1994, he left the bench to become White House counsel to President Clinton.

Eventually, he returned to Chicago, when he retired.

He did good work until the day he died. He and his wife, Zoe, founded the Mikva Challenge, a not-for-profit group that teaches Chicago teenagers to get involved in politics. One of his daughters, Mary Mikva, is now a Cook County judge.

A few years ago, the Reader asked me to write a column about the legends of Hyde Park politics, like Leon Despres, Don Rose, and Richard Newhouse.

A few days after that column ran, I got a call from Andrew Patner—the late, great journalist. He said he and his mom were upset cause I hadn't included Abner Mikva on the list of Hyde Park greats.

I tried to explain that, in my mind, Mikva was an Evanstonian—as he was the man who essentially built the Democratic party in my hometown.

In retrospect, I understand Andrew's passion. Abner Mikva was so great that every community wanted to claim him as its own.

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