Liberal stalwart Abner Mikva dies at 90

Abner Mikva, who represented the northern suburbs in Congress and launched into Democratic politics after being famously rebuffed by a Chicago ward boss, has died at age 90.

A liberal titan of law and politics, he represented the 10th Congressional District from 1975 to 1979 while living in Evanston. He later was a federal judge, White House counsel to President Bill Clinton and an early mentor to President Barack Obama.

"He stood up for what he believed in, and people respected it. And I respected it," said John Porter, the Republican who was defeated by Mikva but later went on to hold the 10th District seat for 20 years.

Mikva died Monday of cancer in hospice care at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said Brian Brady, director of Chicago-based Mikva Challenge, a nonprofit leadership organization that the statesman founded. Mikva was diagnosed with bladder cancer several months ago but had remained "strong and active" until a few weeks ago, said Steven Cohen, who is married to Mikva's oldest of three daughters, Mary.

Mikva's stint in the 10th District was his second go at Congress. He represented the 2nd District on the South Side from 1969 to 1973 before moving north, where Democrats remember him fondly.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Evanston Democrat whose district includes much of the area Mikva represented, knocked on doors for Mikva in his 1970s campaigns and later met with him as she weighed her own bid for Congress.

"People feel deeply about Abner Mikva, which is not the case with most public figures," she said.

"Ab Mikva is one of the finest public servants I have ever known," Lauren Beth Gash, leader of the Tenth Dems organization, said. "His integrity and zeal to make the world a better place are legendary."

Mikva often spoke of how he initially tried to get involved in Chicago politics in 1948 and showed up at the 8th Ward Regular Democratic Organization headquarters: "I came in and said I wanted to help," he recalled in an oral history with political historian Milton Rakove. "Dead silence. 'Who sent you?' the committeeman said. I said, 'Nobody.' He said, 'We don't want nobody nobody sent.'"

The anecdote came to encapsulate the city's often-corrupt patronage system.

Mikva supported gun control and abortion rights, opposed the Vietnam War and capital punishment and was a thorn in the side of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who dominated the city's Democratic machine and referred to him, perhaps not unintentionally, as "Mifka."

Mikva was appointed to the federal bench in 1979, months after defeating Porter, and started his long career as a judge. He became known on the bench for liberal principles that endeared him to the like-minded but at times angered conservatives.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a fellow Democrat, said Mikva's record of public service "was proof that the good guys can win without selling their souls."

"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," Durbin said in an emailed statement.

Obama called Mikva one of his political mentors and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

"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 Tuesday 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," Obama said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who worked with Mikva in the Clinton White House, also expressed condolences Tuesday, saying in a statement: "Throughout his career, Abner fought for unpopular decisions and for those whose voices needed to - but could not - be heard."

Mikva was born in Milwaukee to Yiddish-speaking Ukrainian immigrants. He 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 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 was elected in 1956 to the first of five consecutive terms in the Illinois General Assembly before heading to Congress, where he served on the Judiciary Committee and then the Ways and Means Committee.

Cohen said he remembers Mikva's optimism during a particularly close race for Congress in 1974 against Samuel H. Young. "He was sitting on a dining room chair, upright in front of the TV in the living room," Cohen recalled. "We were all incredibly nervous. Everybody was beside themselves, but he stayed strong and focused."

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 clerked for Mikva during his time at the appeals court.

Mikva offered Obama a job as a clerk, too, though Obama declined. In 1994, Mikva resigned from the bench to become White House counsel to Clinton.

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

"The Constitution does not allow government to subordinate a class of persons simply because others do not like them," Mikva wrote in the 1993 opinion. "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."

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

• Daily Herald Political Editor Mike Riopell contributed to this story.

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Associated PressThen U.S. Rep. Abner J. Mikva clasps hands with President Jimmy Carter after Carter spoke at Niles East High School in Skokie on Nov. 2, 1978.
Abner Mikva, a former congressman, Illinois legislator, federal appellate judge and presidential adviser, has died. He was 90 years old. Associated Press File Photo, 2009
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