CHICAGO – Former U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon, an Illinois Democrat whose career in national and state politics spanned more than 40 consecutive years in public office, died Sunday, his son said. He was 86.
Dixon, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 1993, died at his home in Fairview Heights the day before his 87th birthday. A cancer survivor, he had recently been hospitalized for heart problems and been battling infections, but his condition had recently improved and he'd returned home, his son Jeffrey Dixon told The Associated Press. No official cause of death was released.
"He was a very caring, generous man to his family," his son said. "He always instilled values in all of us to, 'Tell the truth, to smile all the time and they'll be nice to you.'"
Dixon got an early start in politics.
After being elected police magistrate in Belleville, he won an Illinois House seat in 1950. He went on to serve in the Illinois Senate and as the state's treasurer and secretary of state. He won his U.S. Senate seat in 1980 and served there until his surprising loss in the 1992 Democratic primary to Carol Moseley Braun.
Dixon was remembered Sunday for winning nearly every election he sought, as a leader who could bring Republicans and Democrats together – starting the first bipartisan Illinois congressional lunches – and his local approach to politics even as a U.S. senator. His style earned him the nickname "Al the Pal." He returned constituent calls himself, was accessible to the public with weekend office hours and loved beer, recalled Thom Serafin, a Chicago political analyst who served as a press secretary for Dixon.
"He was your Norman Rockwell U.S. senator who believed that if a constituent called him, he called them back. He always said, 'I can't promise you the job, but I can promise that I'll work like heck,'" Serafin said. "He was always the local guy. He was always Al."
In the U.S. Senate, Dixon served as the third-ranking Democrat and chaired a subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee. Dixon had served in the United States Navy Air Corps.
Among Dixon's more controversial moves – which later led to his defeat – was voting to support the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 after law professor Anita Hill claimed Thomas sexually harassed her. Braun, who had served as a Cook County recorder of deeds, said she challenged Dixon because of her outrage over the treatment of Hill during the confirmation hearings. Braun became the first African-American woman in the U.S. Senate.
Dixon later defended his vote by saying that Thomas was qualified and he doubted Hill, according to his 2013 memoir titled "The Gentleman from Illinois: Stories from Forty Years of Elective Public Service." He described other factors leading to his loss, including that the economy wasn't robust and a 1992 banking scandal involving some U.S. House members that generated negative feelings toward public officials in general.
"All of these matters contributed to some extent to the perfect storm undercutting my primary campaign," he wrote in the book. "Having said this, though, I want to emphasize that my basic undoing was the loss of my traditionally liberal base and certain active women's organizations as a result of my Clarence Thomas vote. No amount of explanation for my vote satisfied these groups."
Dixon, a Belleville native, returned to practicing law after his loss, something he did until just months before his death, his son said.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, noted that Dixon was the first statewide Democrat to voluntarily make a full disclosure of his net worth and that Illinois congressional lunches he started still continue.
"Alan Dixon was known for his honesty, his hard work and his commitment to the state he loved," Durbin said. "His friendships reached across the aisle and across our state."
Dixon is survived by his wife and three children. Funeral arrangements planned for Lindenwood University in Belleville were pending, the family said in a statement.