CHICAGO (AP) — Abner Mikva, a liberal stalwart from Illinois who served in all three branches of the federal government, mentored a young Barack Obama and famously learned firsthand the brazen nature of Chicago’s political machine, has died.
The 90-year-old died of bladder cancer Monday at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Steven Cohen, who is married to Mikva’s oldest of three daughters, told The Associated Press.
Mikva worked his way up from a welfare-recipient family to the Illinois House, U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Court of Appeals’ bench and later the White House as an adviser to President Bill Clinton. But his story about his initial attempt to get involved in Chicago politics became legendary in Illinois.
He described walking into the headquarters of the Chicago ward where he lived in 1948 to ask for a volunteer campaigning job, where the cigar-chomping ward boss asked who sent him. Mikva answered, “Nobody sent me,” and the boss responded: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.” That punchline became a household phrase in Illinois, encapsulating the often-corrupt patronage system of a political machine that gripped the city for decades.
“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,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said in an emailed statement.
Obama has said Mikva was one of his political mentors, and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. After Obama graduated from law school, Mikva offered the future president a job as a clerk, though Obama declined.
“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 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.”
Mikva was saddened by partisan rancor in Washington, according to Brian Brady, national director of the nonprofit leadership ground Mikva Challenge that Mikva helped found.
“He thought it had a lot to do with people not socializing together anymore,” he said. “He had dinner and played poker two or three times a week with Republican leaders.”