James R. Thompson
Thompson in 1985
Chair of the Intelligence Oversight Board
In office
February 26, 1990 – January 20, 1993
PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush
Preceded byGlenn W. Campbell
Succeeded byWilliam Crowe
37th Governor of Illinois
In office
January 10, 1977 – January 14, 1991
LieutenantDave O'Neal
George Ryan
Preceded byDan Walker
Succeeded byJim Edgar
Chair of the National Governors Association
In office
August 2, 1983 – July 31, 1984
Preceded byScott Matheson
Succeeded byJohn Carlin
United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois
In office
PresidentRichard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Preceded byWilliam J. Bauer
Succeeded bySamuel K. Skinner
Personal details
James Robert Thompson Jr.

(1936-05-08)May 8, 1936
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedAugust 14, 2020(2020-08-14) (aged 84)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
SpouseJayne Carr
EducationUniversity of Illinois, Chicago
Washington University (BA)
Northwestern University (JD)

James Robert Thompson Jr. (May 8, 1936 – August 14, 2020) was an American politician, lobbyist, and federal prosecutor who served as the 37th governor of Illinois from 1977 to 1991.[1] He was Illinois's longest-serving governor, having been elected to four consecutive terms and holding the office for 14 years.

Thompson was known as a "Rockefeller Republican", as he took more liberal stances on certain issues during his tenure.[2] In later years, Thompson served as a member of the 9/11 Commission, charged with investigating the September 11 attacks.[3]

Early life and education

Thompson was born in Chicago, the son of Agnes Josephine (Swanson) and James Robert Thompson, a physician. His maternal grandparents were Swedish, and his father was descended from colonial Massachusetts governor David Thompson through an entirely paternal line. Through his father's father he is also descended from Josiah Winslow, John Winthrop the Younger, John Leverett, John Underhill and John Mason. His father's mother had ancestors who were Presbyterians of Scottish descent from Carrickfergus, Ballymena and Coleraine, County Antrim, Ireland in what has since become Northern Ireland.[4][5] Thompson graduated from North Park Academy (now North Park University), studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago Navy Pier campus, and at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his J.D. from Northwestern University in 1959.[6]

Law career

Thompson worked in the Cook County State's Attorney's office, taught at Northwestern University's law school, and was appointed by President Richard Nixon to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. As a federal prosecutor in the early 1970s, he obtained a conviction against former governor Otto Kerner, Jr. for his use of improper influence on behalf of the racetrack industry.[7]

He tried and convicted many of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley's top aides, most notably Alderman Thomas E. Keane and County Clerk Matt Danaher, on various corruption charges. People like Keane and Danaher, the mayor's point man on patronage were also major figures in the Cook County Democratic Party's political machine. These high-profile cases gave Thompson the celebrity that fueled his run for governor in 1976.[8]

To the chagrin of many, Thompson was bipartisan in his attacks on corruption in Cook County and Chicago. He not only prosecuted high-profile Democrats, but also prominent Republicans such as County Commissioner Floyd Fulle and former U.S. Senate candidate, William Rentschler. Organized crime in Chicago was harder for his unit to crack and there were few high-profile cases during his era.[8]

Governor of Illinois

This section needs attention from an expert in Illinois, Biography or Politics. The specific problem is: For being the longest serving Illinois governor, there is little detail about his tenure. See the talk page for details. WikiProject Illinois, WikiProject Biography or WikiProject Politics may be able to help recruit an expert. (June 2015)

1976 election

Main article: 1976 Illinois gubernatorial election

In the 1976 election, he won 65 percent of the vote over Democratic Secretary of State Michael Howlett, who had defeated incumbent governor Dan Walker in the primary and who had the support of Chicago Mayor and Cook County Democratic Party chairman Richard J. Daley. Thompson was the first candidate for governor to receive over 3 million votes; his tally of 3,000,395 remains the largest number of votes ever cast for a candidate in an election for Governor of Illinois. His first term was for only two years because Illinois moved its gubernatorial election from presidential-election years to midterm-election years.

1978 and 1982 elections

Main articles: 1978 Illinois gubernatorial election and 1982 Illinois gubernatorial election

Thompson was re-elected to a full four-year term in 1978 with 60 percent of the vote, defeating State Comptroller Michael Bakalis. In 1982, Thompson was very narrowly re-elected over former U.S. Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III. Thompson won the contest by only 5,074 votes.[9]

1986 election

Main article: 1986 Illinois gubernatorial election

A rematch in 1986 was expected to be almost as close, but the Democrats were severely hamstrung when supporters of Lyndon LaRouche won the Democratic nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. Stevenson refused to appear on the same ticket as the LaRouchites, and formed the Solidarity Party with the support of the regular state Democratic organization. With the Democrats badly split, Thompson skated to victory in the general election. Thompson was accused of hiding the sad shape that Illinois' economy and budget were in while campaigning, but once elected, called for an emergency session of the Illinois legislature to address the crisis.[citation needed]


Governor Thompson observing a military exercise in July 1986

On November 12, 1980, Thompson, by his executive order, instituted a hiring freeze for all state agencies, boards, bureaus, and commissions under his control as governor. The order affected approximately 60,000 state positions.[citation needed]

These positions could only be filled if the candidates were first approved by an office created by Thompson, the Governor's Office of Personnel. Suit was brought and the Supreme Court held this political patronage practice unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment rights of low-level public employees in Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62 (1990).

In 1989, Governor Thompson agreed to establish a compounding, 3 percent cost-of-living increase for retirees from Illinois government jobs, including public school teachers. Years later, in an interview with a Chicago business magazine, Thompson said he never knew the cost might exceed $1 billion and likely would not have signed it if he had known.[10] In recent years, the cumulative effect of the 3 percent annual increases has been recognized as one of the major causes of Illinois' public employee pension crisis.

In 1993, the State of Illinois Center in Chicago was renamed the James R. Thompson Center to honor the former governor.[11]

Presidential speculations

During his tenure, Thompson was mentioned as a potential future candidate for President or Vice President. In 1978, The Washington Post declared that "during his first year of elective office, Gov. James R. Thompson has passed one test of a viable presidential candidate to oppose Jimmy Carter" in 1980.[12] Thompson did not run, but was reportedly considered as a running mate for Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.[13] A Chicago Tribune report in 1988 concluded that Thompson was very interested in serving as President, but felt that it was too soon for him to run in 1980 and unviable to run against Vice President George H. W. Bush in 1988.[14]

Legal and lobbying career

After leaving public service, Thompson joined Winston & Strawn, a Chicago-based law firm. Thompson served as chairman of the executive committee from 1991 to 2006, and as chairman and CEO of the firm from 1993 to 2006. He was senior chairman until January 31, 2015.[15]

As CEO of Winston & Strawn, he focused in the area of government relations and regulatory affairs. The firm has lobbied for American Airlines, and he previously represented United Airlines.[1]

Winston & Strawn is the same firm that represented former Illinois governor George Ryan pro bono against federal charges relating to the "Licenses-for-Bribes" scandal during Ryan's tenure as Illinois Governor and Secretary of State. Thompson acted as Ryan's lawyer personally.[16]

On April 17, 2006, Ryan was convicted on all 18 counts, which included racketeering, misusing state resources for political gain, and fraud. He was sentenced to 6½ years in federal prison and began serving his sentence on November 7, 2007. Ryan was released from federal prison on July 3, 2013.[17]

Thompson was also a director and head of the Audit Committee for Hollinger International, the media company founded by Conrad Black, which was the subject of a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.[18]

Later career

Further information: 9/11 Commission

In 2002, he was appointed to serve on the 9/11 Commission, where he aggressively questioned Richard Clarke, the former chief counter-terrorism adviser on the United States National Security Council.[3] The commission's findings were released in the 9/11 Commission Report on July 22, 2004.

During the 2008 presidential primary campaign, Thompson announced his support for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the 2008 Republican nomination.[citation needed] He stressed that Giuliani was the only Republican in the field who could win Illinois.[citation needed]


After suffering from heart issues, Thompson died on August 14, 2020, at the age of 84.[19][20][21][22]

In a tribute on Twitter, political consultant David Axelrod, who covered Thompson as a young journalist, described him as "one of the smartest and most formidable politicians I’ve ever known.”[23]


James R. Thompson was inducted as a laureate of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois and awarded the Order of Lincoln (the state's highest honor) by the governor of Illinois in 1991 in the area of Government.[24]


  1. ^ a b "James Thompson, Partner". Winston & Strawn LLP. Archived from the original on September 7, 2013. Retrieved August 12, 2008.
  2. ^ Steinberg, Neil (August 15, 2020). "Former Gov. James Thompson, a giant of Illinois politics, dead at 84". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 16, 2020.
  3. ^ a b Ripley, Amanda (April 5, 2004). "Chief Accuser: How Credible Is Clarke?". TIME. Archived from the original on December 10, 2005.
  4. ^ Heritage of James R. Thompson: Governor of Illinois - Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Family History Library (Salt Lake City, Utah) Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Family History Library, 1989
  5. ^ "Info". ilga.gov. Retrieved August 15, 2020.
  6. ^ James R. Thompson (alumni exhibit) – Northwestern University Archives. Retrieved September 9, 2021
  7. ^ Benzkofer, Stephan. "First Illinois governor to do time was known as 'Mr. Clean,'" Chicago Tribune, Sunday, December 11, 2011. Retrieved September 9, 2021
  8. ^ a b "Former Gov. James Thompson, a giant of Illinois politics, dead at 84". August 15, 2020.
  10. ^ "The Illinois Pension Disaster". ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ Kamin, Blair (November 18, 2017). "Fighting to save the Thompson Center with a movie camera". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 9, 2018.
  12. ^ "Two Tests for 'Big Jim' Thompson". The Washington Post. February 1, 1978.
  13. ^ "Reagan Campaign Looks to Running Mate". The Washington Post. May 13, 1980.
  14. ^ Camper, John (May 13, 1988). "THOMPSON, BUSH HAVE A DREAM IN COMMON". Chicago Tribune.
  15. ^ Bushey, Claire (February 24, 2015). "Thompson retiring from Winston & Strawn". Crain's Chicago Business. Retrieved April 4, 2015.
  16. ^ Davey, Monica (May 28, 2008). "Ex-Governor, Now in Prison, Sees Case End". The New York Times. Retrieved June 6, 2015.
  17. ^ "Former Ill. governor George Ryan released from custody". USA TODAY.
  18. ^ "Ex-governor testifies in Hollinger trial". Los Angeles Times. May 2, 2007.
  19. ^ Steinberg, Neil (August 15, 2020). "Former Gov. James Thompson, a giant of Illinois politics, dead at 84". Chicago Sun-Times.
  20. ^ Cramer, Maria (August 15, 2020). "James R. Thompson, Longest-Serving Governor of Illinois, Dies at 84". The New York Times.
  21. ^ Pearson, Rick; Sobol, Rosemary (August 15, 2020). "Former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson dies at age 84. A Republican from Chicago, 'Big Jim' served 4 terms". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 15, 2020.
  22. ^ Babwin, Don (August 15, 2020). "Former Illinois Gov. Thompson, who fought corruption, dies". Associated Press. Retrieved August 15, 2020.
  23. ^ Cramer, Maria (August 15, 2020). "James R. Thompson, Longest-Serving Governor of Illinois, Dies at 84". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 27, 2022.
  24. ^ "Laureates by Year - The Lincoln Academy of Illinois". The Lincoln Academy of Illinois. Retrieved March 4, 2016.


Party political offices Preceded byRichard Ogilvie Republican nominee for Governor of Illinois 1976, 1978, 1982, 1986 Succeeded byJim Edgar Preceded byJohn Dalton Chair of the Republican Governors Association 1981–1982 Succeeded byRobert Orr Political offices Preceded byDan Walker Governor of Illinois 1977–1991 Succeeded byJim Edgar Preceded byScott Matheson Chair of the National Governors Association 1983–1984 Succeeded byJohn Carlin Government offices Preceded byGlenn Campbell Chair of the Intelligence Oversight Board 1990–1993 Succeeded byWilliam Crowe