Illinois roots don't guarantee support for presidential hopefuls

Chuck Sweeny

Abraham Lincoln. Paul Simon. Jesse Jackson. Adlai Stevenson. Barack Obama. John B. Anderson, Hillary Clinton and Ulysses S. Grant. They’re among an elite group of presidential candidates (and three presidents) who Illinoisans can, by varying degrees, call favorite sons and daughters.

But what does that actually mean?

Nowadays, “favorite son” defines anyone from a state, region, city or school who has risen to national or international prominence in business, politics, sports or the arts. And in the modern era it includes favorite daughters. Do a Google search of the term “favorite son,” and you get 2.75 million entries.

“The concept has absolutely no meaning now. It only mattered when candidates were chosen by the party conventions,” said Bob Evans, professor of political science at Rockford College.

Historically, the “favorite son” is but one quirk in America’s crazy quilt way of choosing a president –- the antiquated electoral college, the 50 separate elections with their own, unique rules.

In the days before states used primary elections and caucuses to pick the presidential nominees, both the Republican and Democratic parties’ candidates were chosen in conventions. State delegations were often uncommitted and under control of political bosses; conventions sometimes took multiple votes before agreeing on a nominee.

“Favorite sons were bargainers on behalf of their state or themselves,” Evans explained.

Those favorite sons, usually governors, senators or a powerful mayor, used their delegation’s votes as a bargaining chip to get pork projects for their states or cabinet positions for themselves in return for supporting a candidate for president. As more and more states switched to primary elections or caucuses to choose presidential candidates, the favorite son concept became irrelevant.

This year, the prospect of a deadlocked Democratic convention became a possibility because Hillary Clinton and Obama were nearly tied in popular votes and delegates. If that had happened, the political bosses or “superdelegates,” the modern equivalent of favorite sons, could have called the shots, Evans said.

That didn’t happen because Clinton withdrew from the race and threw her support to Obama. So the Democratic convention in Denver was another in a series of routine coronation ceremonies, as was the Republican confab in St. Paul, where John McCain was nominated.

One last interesting fact: Ohio and Virginia may have produced more presidents, but Illinois is no slouch when it comes to candidates who have spent at least part of their adult lives here.

We claim the man on the five dollar bill as our most favorite son. Yes, he was born in Kentucky. Yes, he spent some early years in Indiana. But Lincoln became a man, developed his career, raised a family and owned his only home in the state we call the Land of Lincoln.

Other “favorites” were born elsewhere, too, but spent at least some of their formative and/or professional years here.

Here, then, are some of Illinois’ sons and daughters through the years.

All-time favorite son

Born in 1809 in Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln spent his formative years in Illinois, where he taught himself to be a lawyer and served in the Legislature and Congress. He challenged Stephen Douglas for Senate in 1858 and lost, although he won the popular vote. (The Legislature appointed senators in those days).

At the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago, Lincoln, the favorite son of Illinois, trailed William Seward of New York in the first two ballots. Abe won on the third ballot because his campaign leaders were able to convince enough delegates that Lincoln could unite the party’s various factions. He won the general election against Democrat Douglas and another Democrat, John C. Breckinridge. Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

Favorite son/war hero

Ulysses S. Grant was born as Hiram Ulysses Grant in Ohio in 1822. He died in New York in 1885. The West Point graduate and combatant in the Mexican War failed in business ventures in Missouri and came to Galena in 1859 to work in his father’s leatherworking firm. When the Civil War began, Grant recruited Illinois volunteers and rose quickly to the rank of brigadier general. After Grant led Union troops to a series of brutal victories over the Confederates, President Lincoln in 1864 appointed this brilliant general to lead all Union forces; Grant accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865.

Grant returned to Galena, where grateful residents gave him a fine home on a hill overlooking the city; it is now a historical monument and open for tours.

In 1868 he ran for president as a Republican. In those days, candidates did not campaign — surrogates handled that job. Grant learned of his election via telegraph, which had been set up in the library of Galena’s Belvedere House.

As president, Grant tried to enforce Reconstruction and ensure voting rights to newly freed slaves, but he also worked to bring the states of the Old Confederacy back into the Union without undue punishment. He was re-elected in 1872. Grant retired and went into business, but went bankrupt. To provide for his family, he wrote a celebrated memoir of his Civil War experiences. Just days after finishing the book, he died of throat cancer. His remains are in a New York City monument commonly called “Grant’s Tomb.”

Not-so-favorite son

Adlai Stevenson II was born in Los Angeles in 1900 and grew up in Bloomington. A lawyer, he served in various positions in the federal government. Stevenson was elected governor of Illinois in 1948. In 1952, he was drafted by delegates to the Democratic convention after giving a rousing welcoming speech. But Stevenson lost the ’52 election to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in a landslide. In 1956, he was again the Democratic candidate and again was soundly defeated by Ike the war hero. Stevenson, who didn’t carry Illinois in either 1952 or 1956, rounded out his political career as UN ambassador and died in London in 1965.

Rockford’s favorite son

John B. Anderson was born in Rockford in 1922, elected Winnebago County state’s attorney in 1956, won the 16th Congressional District seat in 1960 and served through 1980.

In 1980 he ran for president as a Republican but dropped out of the race to run as an independent. Anderson got nearly 6 million votes, coming in behind President Jimmy Carter, the Democrat, and Republican Ronald Reagan, the victor. In Illinois, Anderson received 7.3 percent of the vote.

Since 1980, Anderson has served on boards of several political reform groups and has taught law. Once a solid conservative, Anderson has drifted left. He has endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president.

Shared favorite son

Ronald W. Reagan is claimed by California, but our 40th president was born in 1911 in Tampico. He grew up in Dixon, where he was a lifeguard on a popular Rock River beach and his home is now a popular tourist attraction.

Reagan went to Des Moines, Iowa, as a young man to work as radio announcer. He moved on to Hollywood and had a successful acting career.

Once a liberal Democrat who headed the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan gradually moved to the right. He ran for president in 1976 against incumbent Gerald Ford, losing in the Republican primary. He was victorious in 1980 against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter and independent Rockfordian John B. Anderson. Reagan won Illinois with 49.6 percent of the vote.

Reagan died in 2004 at his Los Angeles home.

Almost favorite son I

Paul Simon was born in 1928 in the state of Oregon. He came to Illinois as a young man and worked as a newspaper publisher in Troy who made a name for himself as a corruption fighter.

Simon served as state legislator, lieutenant governor, U.S. congressman and U.S. senator. In 1988 he ran for president, winning the Illinois primary but losing the nomination ultimately to Michael Dukakis.

Simon went on to found a public policy institute at Southern Illinois University; he died in 2003.

Almost favorite son II

Jesse L. Jackson Sr. was born in South Carolina in 1941 and came to Illinois as a young man. He became active in the civil rights movement, working with Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Jackson continued his civil rights work after King’s death in 1968, founding Operation Push in Chicago.

In 1984, Jackson ran for president as a Democrat, winning nearly 3.3 million primary votes. He won five primaries and caucuses but lost Illinois. Walter Mondale won the Democratic nomination in ’84.

In 1988, Jackson ran again, winning seven state caucuses and four primaries and 7 million votes. He again lost the Illinois primary and lost the nomination to Michael Dukakis.

Shared almost favorite daughter

Hillary Rodham Clinton was born in Park Ridge in 1947 and lived there until she went to Wellesley College and Yale Law School. She moved to Arkansas in 1974 and married Bill Clinton, who became attorney general and then governor. She moved to Washington, D.C., to be first lady for two terms in the 1990s. Clinton then moved to New York, where she was elected senator in 2000.

Clinton, a Democrat, ran for president in 2008, winning 18 million votes and coming close to winning the nomination. She lost the Illinois primary to Barack Obama. She closed her campaign in June and threw her support to Obama.

Favorite son to be?

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961. He grew up there and in Indonesia, graduated from Columbia University in New York and came to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of South Side Catholic churches. He then went to Harvard Law School and was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Obama came back to Chicago and began a political career, getting elected to the state senate in 1996 and the U.S. Senate in 2004. The Democratic nominee lives in Chicago.

Chuck Sweeny can be reached