CHICAGO — Former U.S. Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III, the fourth generation of an iconic Illinois Democratic political family to hold public office and who lost the closest governor’s race in state history, died Monday in his Chicago home. He was 90.
Stevenson, the namesake of a great-grandfather who served as 23rd vice president of the United States and a father who served as Illinois’ 31st governor and twice ran as the Democratic nominee for president, represented Illinois in the U.S. Senate from 1970 through 1981.
His wife of 67 years, Nancy Stevenson, confirmed his death.
“When he was in the Senate, he didn’t go to a lot of fancy dinners. He came home to dinner with the family,” she said. “That was his first and constant concern, the family.”
Stevenson’s political career began when he was elected in 1964 as a member of the Illinois House on the famous “bedsheet” ballot, where all candidates ran for at-large statewide seats because of redistricting problems.
He then successfully ran for Illinois treasurer in 1966, holding that office until November 1970 when he won a special U.S. Senate election following the death of Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen a year earlier.
Stevenson easily defeated Republican Ralph Tyler Smith, who had been appointed to the seat, taking 58% of the vote. After finishing Dirksen’s term, Stevenson won reelection in 1974, then decided not to run again in 1980. He stepped aside in January 1981 for fellow Democrat Alan Dixon, who won the November election.
In 1982, Stevenson ran for governor. He had initially sought the Democratic Party’s backing for the office in 1968, but was brushed aside by then-Mayor Richard J. Daley. The 1982 match-up would go down as the tightest race for governor in Illinois history, with Stevenson losing by less than 1 percentage point — 5,074 votes to be exact — to Republican incumbent James R. Thompson.
Perhaps the most memorable moment from that contest, aside from its close finish, was the debate over whether Thompson had implied Stevenson was a “wimp.”
″He is saying, ‘Me tough guy,’ as if to imply that I’m some kind of wimp,″ Stevenson said during the campaign. Thompson famously replied, “I have never called Adlai Stevenson a wimp,” before saying he didn’t know what a wimp was.
With results showing Stevenson trailing by a few thousand votes out of more than 3.6 million cast, he began the process for a recount by reviewing a portion of ballots in selected counties. He contended the partial recount indicated he would win by some 40,000 votes and his team argued the case before the Illinois Supreme Court, which at the time was made up of four Democrats and three Republicans.
Democratic Justice Seymour Simon joined the three Republican justices in ruling the state’s recount statute was unconstitutional, handing the victory to Thompson. In a 2000 interview with the Tribune, Stevenson alleged Simon’s vote was payback for Stevenson passing him up for a federal judgeship while he was senator. Simon vehemently denied the allegation as “nonsense,” while Stevenson further alleged a recount would have exposed Cook County Democrats to allegations of voter fraud.
“It will always be uncertain what was the will of the people in the gubernatorial election of 1982,” the three dissenting Supreme Court justices concluded in the controversial case.
In a 2017 interview with the Tribune, an 86-year-old Stevenson joked, “I still haven’t conceded, by the way.”
In 1986, Stevenson sought a rematch. After winning the party’s nomination in the primary, he abandoned the Democratic ticket after Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart, followers of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche, won the nomination for lieutenant governor and secretary of state, respectively.
Stevenson instead mounted a third-party candidacy on the ticket of the Illinois Solidarity Party, which all but ensured the clobbering Thompson gave him on his way to winning the third of his historic four terms in office.
After losing both the closest and one of the most lopsided races for governor, Stevenson did not seek office again. He went on to a lengthy private sector career with a focus on business relations in East Asia.
He also wrote “The Black Book,” which “records American politics and history as his family knew it over five generations of active engagement, starting with Abraham Lincoln in central Illinois,” according to the family obituary.
Nancy Stevenson summed up her 67-year marriage to him as “one long adventure.”
“He was a man who loved to explore every time he was in a new place,” she said. “He loved to explore ideas, and he took his family with him every chance he got.”
Stevenson’s great-grandfather, Adlai Stevenson I, served as vice president to President Grover Cleveland, helping deliver Illinois for Cleveland. The eldest Stevenson was twice elected to Congress from Illinois before twice losing reelection during Republican presidential years. He also ran for vice president on the losing presidential ticket of William Jennings Bryan in 1900 before narrowly losing a 1908 run for Illinois governor.
Stevenson’s grandfather, Lewis Stevenson, got appointed as Illinois secretary of state in 1914, but lost his 1916 campaign for reelection.
Stevenson’s father, Adlai Stevenson II, successfully ran for governor in 1948, ousting two-term Republican incumbent Dwight Green and becoming a national figure in the process. Stevenson had planned to run for reelection in 1952 before reluctantly getting nominated by the Democratic National Convention to run against overwhelmingly popular Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower easily defeated Stevenson II in 1952 and again in 1956, when he received the Democratic nomination a second time. Stevenson II sought a third nomination in 1960, but lost out to the youthful John F. Kennedy, who won Stevenson’s own Illinois delegation with the support of Daley.
Stevenson III graduated from Milton Academy, Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He served with the Marine Corps in Korea and was discharged as a captain from the Marine Reserves in 1961.
In his bids for governor, the youngest Stevenson often said he was born to run for office and often referenced the political debt he owed his famous father.
In his 2017 interview with the Tribune, Stevenson noted that his son, executive Adlai Stevenson IV, and grandson Adlai Stevenson V didn’t seem inclined to follow his footsteps into politics.
“My father said he was ‘born with an incurable hereditary disease of politics,’” Stevenson said. “Apparently, the disease has been cured.”
In addition to his wife, Stevenson is survived by two sons, Adlai IV and Warwick; two brothers, John and Borden; and nine grandchildren.
Service information was not yet available.