When Rep. Tom Gordon announced his retirement in Washington in 1957, it was a surprise in Chicago and "a real dilemma" for Dan Rostenkowski. He was 27, serving his first term in the state senate after two years in the state house; "I wanted to spend 10 years in the legislature, and I thought I was too young" for a congressional race, he says.
Most 27-year-old Chicagoans don't face such dilemmas, but Dan Rostenkowski was born into a political family. His grandfather came down from the Polish lumber mill town of Stevens Point, Wis., and settled across from St. Stanislaus Kostka Church. He built a brick house with 18-inch walls, and four families lived in it. Dan Rostenkowski has gutted and renovated it, and still lives in it.
In 1896 his grandfather ran for county commissioner as a Bryan Democrat. In 1930, his father, Joe, was elected state representative as a Democrat. It was a moment pregnant with opportunity: Chicago had just elected a Democratic mayor, Anton Cermak. Joe Rostenkowski was Cermak's loyal follower, was in Florida with Cermak when he was fatally shot in 1933 (by an assassin trying to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt), and went on to serve as alderman from 1931 to 1955. He was appointed Collector of the Port of Chicago in 1961, and was, most importantly, 32d ward committeeman until his death.
Dan went to St. John's Military School in Delafield, Wis. (it was 1942, and "my father thought a military education wasn't the worst thing to have"), to college in Kansas and, when his mother was sick, transferred to Loyola in Chicago. He served in the Army during the Korean war, got married, and, when an incumbent retired, was elected to the legislature at 24. "I asked my dad about running, and he said change your name back" -- Dan had dropped the -kowski at St. John's -- or his Polish-American constituents wouldn't be pleased. Campaigning meant "go and visit the organization, put posters and signs at the mouths of alleys, stand in front of churches." The machine was looking for good Polish candidates, and Rostenkowski was well connected with the machine.
"I'll put you on the dance floor," his father told him, "but you've got to handle the steps yourself." Rostenkowski was happy in the legislature. "You worked on the train going down" to Springfield, "and coming back. It was a friendly atmosphere at dinner. We were all bachelors, and you exchanged stories around a big round table, drinking big steins of beer at the old Abe Lincoln, and after you'd either go to a movie or discuss legislation in the lobbies of the hotel."
He is proud of his record as a legislator; he made a name on two big bills. One was the Korean veteran bonus bill, which he got "by accident;" he was one of the few Korean vets in the legislature. The other was a $300,000 polio vaccine bill; there was a polio epidemic, and Salk vaccine was new. "I just jumped on it; I thought it was a good idea. When I compare $300,000 with what we deal with today . . ."
However tough Rostenkowski's dilemma when Congressman Gordon retired, he quickly decided to run. Mayor Richard Daley didn't want him to go to Washington ("You got a good name, good ideas, you could be president of the county board, or some day mayor of the city"); the usual route to power was in the city.
But Rostenkowski had always been a legislator, working "out of town." He argued that Chicago needed seniority in Washington ("The wave of the future is the federal government; you need younger people who would not use it as a springboard. That's why the South won the war; they own the government").
They argued on. "If you let him run over you, he'd run over you. But there was a large Polish constituency in Chicago, and he couldn't afford to get me angry at him," Rostenkowski says. Daley's strongest opponent was Benjamin Adamowski, who ran against him in 1955 and 1963; he carried Polish wards, and Joe Rostenkowski lost his council seat "supporting Richard J. Daley in 1955." Dan Rostenkowski won his argument, after he agreed to continue living in Chicago, and was elected congressman in 1958.
"You didn't get involved as early" in legislation then, he says. Instead he went on "suicide missions," campaigning for Kennedy in Alabama. "He was Catholic and young, I was Catholic and young. It was a cause to you. You don't know when you're losing. It's fun when you're in a crusade". Fun compared to the work in writing legislation, like the tax bill he's just finished working on.
Rostenkowski lives in the 32nd ward still, in his big brick house two blocks from the Chicago River and across from St. Stanislaus'. His daughters are grown, and the neighborhood is mostly Hispanic and southern white now. Mayor Daley ("he had a good word, and a vision of Chicago's greatness") is long gone.
In the current tax reform battle, this son of a war committeeman seems, if not quite idealistic, then certainly engaged, as Ways and Means Committee chairman fighting for his side of an issue much like the young Chicago politician who made his way upward out of town.