Richard Phelan, former Cook County Board president who restored abortion services, dies at 86

Richard Phelan emerged as a rising political star in the 1990s, winning a term as Cook County Board president and restoring abortion services at the county hospital system despite his Roman Catholic faith — but he fell short in his bid to move up to the governor’s mansion.

After a career as a trial lawyer, Phelan was thrust into the limelight in 1988 when he was appointed as special outside counsel to probe then-Speaker of the House Jim Wright of Texas.

From there, he moved easily into the world of Chicago politics.

“As a trial lawyer, he took very naturally to the performance elements of politics,” said political consultant David Axelrod. “He was a tall, good looking guy who spoke the idiom of the town.”

Phelan died peacefully in his sleep Tuesday night at his home in north suburban Lake Forest, his family said in a news release announcing his death. The cause of death was metastatic cancer. He was 86.

His political climb began with the Wright appointment.

Despite criticism that Phelan could not properly investigate a fellow Democrat, he detailed allegations that Wright improperly accepted gifts in a televised hearing of the U.S House Ethics Committee in 1990. Wright resigned soon after.

Phelan gained notoriety from those high-profile hearings and turned his attention back to Chicago, where he successfully ran for county board president, serving one term from 1990 to 1994.

Once elected board president, Phelan used his executive powers to restore abortion services to the county’s health care provider after they had been banned by longtime County Board President George Dunne.

“President Phelan dedicated his career to advancing accessible health care for all,” Dr. Erik Mikaitis, interim CEO of Cook County Health, said in a released statement. “At a time when many local governments were shuttering public health systems, he led the charge to purchase the historic Provident Hospital and fund a replacement Cook County Hospital facility. He was also a stalwart champion of reproductive rights for women.

“Each day, hundreds of patients, including many of our county’s most vulnerable residents, walk through the doors of Stroger and Provident Hospitals and receive care at facilities that exist largely thanks to President Phelan’s tremendous work,” Mikaitis said. “We are incredibly grateful for his enduring legacy and will honor his memory in the work we do every day as we continue to advance health equity in Cook County.”

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