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Dan Rostenkowski, 82; powerful committee chairman in U.S. House

By Emma Brown
Thursday, August 12, 2010; A01

Dan Rostenkowski, 82, a product of the Chicago Democratic political machine who became one of the most powerful members of the U.S. House of Representatives before he lost his seat and was jailed for fraud, died Wednesday of cancer at his summer home in Genoa City, Wis.

In 18 terms in office, Mr. Rostenkowski worked to shake what he said was his reputation as a political hack. He rose to become chief architect of the nation's tax policies as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and in 1983, he was instrumental in passing an overhaul of Social Security that kept the retirement system solvent.

Three years later, he engineered the most extensive revision of the nation's tax code since World War II. Hailed by President Ronald Reagan as "a second American Revolution," the bipartisan compromise closed loopholes for corporations, eliminated tax shelters and exempted millions of low-income workers from paying taxes.

"That deal could not have been done without Rostenkowski," said Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. "I don't know if he would pass a CPA exam, but he knew how to count votes in the House."

Mr. Rostenkowski, the son of a Chicago alderman and ward committeeman who trafficked in political favors, entered Congress in 1959 with the backing of Mayor Richard J. Daley, patriarch of the city's machine. As the mayor's man in Washington, Mr. Rostenkowski delivered billions of federal dollars to Chicago, including $450 million to repair the city's John F. Kennedy Expressway and $4 billion for the Deep Tunnel project to keep sewage out of Lake Michigan.

An expert horse-trader and arm-twister in the tradition of his hometown politics, the jowly, 6-foot-2 lawmaker from Illinois relished Washington gamesmanship.

But Mr. Rostenkowski was more interested in passing legislation than in political posturing, Green said, and was willing to court Republicans as well as his fellow Democrats. The congressman largely avoided television cameras and ignored polls, employing neither press aides nor political consultants for most of his career.

"You don't have many men like him there anymore who can work both sides of the aisle," Green said. "He reflected a bygone era, not only in Chicago politics but in national politics."

By the early 1990s, he was poised to be President Bill Clinton's most important congressional ally. But for all Mr. Rostenkowski's clout in Washington and Chicago, he was little known to the wider public until his legal troubles hit newspapers' front pages.

In 1993, former House postmaster Robert V. Rota pleaded guilty to helping representatives embezzle money through fraudulent stamp-buying deals.

The ensuing investigation resulted in a six-month jail sentence for Rep. Joseph P. Kolter (D-Pa.) and the indictment of Mr. Rostenkowski on 17 felony counts. Among other crimes, he was charged with taking at least $50,000 from the post office and using federal money to pay "ghost employees," who mowed Mr. Rostenkowski's lawn and supervised the renovation of his home instead of working on public business.

Under House rules, the indictment meant that Mr. Rostenkowski had to give up the Ways and Means chairmanship in July 1994. Months later, he lost his seat to Republican Michael Patrick Flanagan (R).

(Flanagan served one term before losing to Rod Blagojevich (D), who later became Illinois governor and faced federal corruption charges in recent years.)

Mr. Rostenkowski maintained his innocence but said he struck a deal to avoid going to trial. He pleaded guilty to two counts of felony mail fraud and served 15 months in federal prison and two in a halfway house.

After his release, Mr. Rostenkowski set up shop as a political consultant. He remained unrepentant, but worried that his legislative legacy would be overshadowed by his jail time.

"I'm afraid the obituary will talk about the felony," he told the New York Times in 1998.

He was pardoned in 2000 by Clinton.

Stalled ascent

Daniel David Rostenkowski was born in Chicago on Jan. 2, 1928. He grew up in a Polish immigrant neighborhood in a house built by his grandfather.

He went to a Catholic boarding school in Wisconsin, enrolling as Daniel Rosten, and won 14 letters, in baseball, football, basketball and track. He was voted most athletic, most popular and runner-up for most conceited.

He served in the Army for two years and then was invited to try out for the old Philadelphia Athletics baseball team. But his mother had fallen ill with cancer, and his father summoned him back to Chicago to take up the family business: politics.

"Come home," the elder Rostenkowski said. "You're never going to be a Lou Gehrig or a Babe Ruth."

In Chicago, he put the "-kowksi" back on the end of his name and went on a blind date with a blonde named LaVerne Pirkins. The two were married in 1951.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three daughters, Dawn Rosten, Gayle Rosten and Kristie Rosten, all of Chicago; and a grandson. Another daughter, Stacy Rosten-McDarrah, died in 2007.

Mr. Rostenkowski was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1952. He was 24.

Six years later, he landed a seat in Congress. His wife refused to move to the District, so he went home each weekend from Washington, and for decades, he continued to serve as the Democratic committeeman from Chicago's 32nd Ward.

He spent decades climbing the leadership ladder of the Democratic Party and cultivating relationships with Beltway insiders at such places as Morton's in Georgetown, where he held court over martinis and thick steaks at a table known as "Rosty's Rotunda."

He made no secret of his ambition to become speaker of the House. "Dan Rostenkowski all but wore a sign around his neck that flashed 'I want power,' " biographer James L. Merriner wrote.

In 1963, he became the House Democratic assistant whip. The next year, the leader of the Illinois congressional delegation, Thomas J. O'Brien, died, and Mr. Rostenkowski inherited his Ways and Means seat.

When colleagues elected him chairman of the House Democratic Caucus in 1966 and again in 1968, he appeared to be the party's rising star.

That climb stalled after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The story goes that then-House Majority Leader Carl Albert (D-Okla.) had trouble controlling unruly antiwar delegates, and Mr. Rostenkowski -- acting at the request of President Lyndon Johnson, he said -- took the gavel to restore order.

Mr. Rostenkowksi was fond of repeating that story, and Albert didn't forget it. When Albert became speaker of the House, he refused to make Mr. Rostenkowski assistant majority leader.

Instead, that post went to Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who went on to become speaker in 1977. In addition, Mr. Rostenkowski lost his chairmanship of the party caucus.

"I just wanted to crawl in a hole and die," Mr. Rostenkowski later told the Chicago Tribune. "I had been on the crest of a wave and now I was drowning."

A turning point

A turning point came in 1976, when Mr. Rostenkowski noticed during a House-Senate conference committee that an old foe, Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.), was pushing for a tax-bill provision to benefit the insurance industry in his home state.

Mr. Rostenkowski spent hours parsing the arcane details of the issue, and when the provision came up for debate, he surprised everyone by trouncing Ribicoff.

"I went into the room," Mr. Rostenkowski recalled in 1981, "and just kicked the brains out of them."

After the 1980 election, a Republican landslide that ushered Reagan into the White House and many Democrats out of Congress, Mr. Rostenkowski became one of his party's most-senior members. He could have become majority leader, putting him one step closer to speaker, but he decided to take the helm of Ways and Means.

"A lot of people assume that because I'm from the big city and from quote unquote a machine operation, that all I want to do is play politics," he said. "I want to be a patriot, too."

As chairman, Mr. Rostenkowski was popular with lobbyists, who provided junkets to various locales with good weather and fine golf courses.

Perhaps more important, he held sway over other House members, who knew that crossing him meant paying a price. "I knew everybody wanted something from the chairman," he told the Tribune. "The best attitude was to have people afraid to ask you for anything, and then when you gave them something, they'd be tickled to death. I loved that."

In 1992, members of Congress were given a one-time-only chance to leave office and keep their campaign funds for personal use. Mr. Rostenkowski could have retired and held on to more than a million dollars. Instead, he ran for reelection.

"I think he ran again," said Tom Lyons, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and an old friend, "because he didn't want people to say he took the million dollars."

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