One of the most influential politicians to come from Chicago and affect the nation, Daniel David Rostenkowski died Wednesday morning at his home in Wisconsin. He was 82.
A master deal-maker and powerful legislator, Rostenkowski earned respect and sometimes fear from politicians and constituents alike during his reign as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1981 to 1994. Most simply knew him as “Mr. Chairman” or "Danny."
Thomas Lynch, friend and fellow Cook County Democrat once called him the, “Joe DiMaggio of legislators,” in an interview with the New York Times.
His rolling jowls, shrewd eyes and powerful stature made him easily recognizable. In the corridors of Washington and smoke filled rooms in Chicago, Rostenkowski combined a gregarious personality, with an old boy politicking style.
Born into a family entangled in Chicago politics, Rostenkowski emerged a product of the Cook County Democratic machine.
His father was the longtime alderman of the blue-collar predominantly Polish 32nd ward where Rostenkowski played as a child and later lived with his own family in the three-story brick house his grandfather built.
Like his father, Rostenkowski always kept a hand in the political doings of his childhood neighborhood, holding down a committeeman’s seat until his promotion to chairman of Ways and Means in 1981.
Rostenkowski showed a talent for politics at a young age when he was elected to his first public office in the Illinois State Legislature at only 24, while completing an undergraduate degree at Loyola University.
From 1959 to 1995, he served in the U.S. Congress in a long ascent to the pinnacle of Illinois and national politics. He oversaw the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, one of the most sweeping and complex tax reforms in U.S. history, as well as significant changes to the healthcare, welfare system and social security programs.
During his length tenure in the House, Rostenkowski enjoyed breakfast with nine US presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, until 1994 when his political career ended abruptly.
Ultimately federal investigators caught him bending the rules, and dishing out favors to friends and family. He was indicted on 17 charges.
He was also accused of cashing stamp vouchers from the House Post Office and ordering gifts from the House Stationary store; fancy china, hand-carved maple dining chairs as gifts for friends, which he referred to in an interview as “ashtrays and chairs.”
He fought the charges at first, but after losing a race for his old congressional seat, he plead guilty on two counts of mail fraud. He was sentenced to 17 months in a Wisconsin Federal Prison, but spent the last two in a halfway house working as a consultant. A proud man who loved the game of politics, Rostenkowski deeply regretted the end of his career. ''I was there 36 years,'' he once said. ''They changed the rules 30 times.''
To his surprise in 2000 he received a full pardon during the final days of the Clinton administration.
In the last years of his life, “Mr. Chairman,” was content watching from the sidelines. Still he found ways to put an impressive resume to work, even landing a spot as a local political commentator on WFLD television station
To this day, he is highly regarded for a remarkable legislative body of work and for always finding ways and means to bring home the bacon to his neighborhood and the City of Chicago he loved so much.
“Rosty didn't create the system; he mastered it. And when he's gone, there will be fewer people who understand it," said Bill Daley, son of former Mayor Richard J. Daley, in an interview with the Baltimore Sun.