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James R. Thompson (1936–2020), longest-serving governor of Illinois

by Linnea Crowther

James R. Thompson was a Republican former governor of Illinois, who served from 1977 to 1991 and was the longest-serving governor in the state’s history.

Governor and prosecutor

Before he became governor, Thompson was U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. He was prosecutor for notable corruption cases, including the conviction of former Illinois governor Otto Kerner, Jr. and several of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s prominent aides. In 1976, Thompson was elected governor, winning more than three million votes, a record-setting number of votes that hasn’t been surpassed since.

Thompson’s electoral success was due in part to his love for campaigning. He was known for being impeccably prepared when traveling the state to campaign – and for walking parade routes twice so he could connect with more voters. He became known as Big Jim, winning three more elections and serving until 1991. During his four terms in office, Thompson spearheaded the Build Illinois infrastructure initiative, and he helped negotiate a new stadium deal that kept the White Sox in Chicago. In the years after his final term came to an end, Thompson was chairman and CEO of law firm Winston & Strawn, and he served on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, investigating the 9/11 attacks.

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Thompson on campaigning

“I took the recession and made it one of my rallying points with my [1982] re-election slogan, ‘A tough leader for tough times,’ and there was no sugar-coating it or glossing it over. It was right out in front. I decided, If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. You can’t pretend to people that these bad things are not happening, and you cannot conduct yourself in a way that doesn’t show you’re fighting with everything you’ve got to help them. And I was.” —from a 2015 oral history interview for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

Tributes to James R. Thompson

Full obituary: The Chicago Tribune

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