Dan Rostenkowski dies at 82; former U.S. representative from Chicago

Dan Rostenkowski, an old-style Chicago ward boss who became one of the nation’s most powerful legislators during the Reagan era before a stunning fall to corruption charges that left him branded a political anachronism, has died. He was 82.

Rostenkowski, who was suffering from cancer, died Wednesday at his Wisconsin summer home near Benedict Lake, members of Illinois’ congressional delegation confirmed.

His command of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee made him a key player in Washington, but at home he was most celebrated for using that influence to steer billions of dollars in federal aid to Chicago.

Rostenkowski thrived during an era in Washington when hardball politics was tempered by compromise. During his 36-year tenure in Congress he relished his role as a dealmaker with the likes of Democratic Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.


But he lost his House seat just months after being indicted on federal charges of accepting kickbacks and diverting taxpayer dollars for personal use. He served 15 months in prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud and was later pardoned by President Clinton.

“He was one of the most effective leaders in Washington in the 20th century,” Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said Wednesday. “Say a prayer for him, because he loved Chicago.”

The first President Bush issued a statement calling Rostenkowski “a forceful leader who was also exceptionally fair. Everyone in the Congress respected him.”

Rostenkowski was the longtime Democratic committeeman for the 32nd Ward, burly and blunt, with a meat-and-potatoes style that charmed Washington elites and his Polish neighbors on the Northwest Side.


Long known as the late Mayor Richard J. Daley’s man in Washington, Rostenkowski went to Congress in 1959 and five years later got a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He assumed the committee chairmanship in 1981, a post he held until 1994.

He steered huge blocks of federal cash to the Chicago region, particularly for transportation projects.

Nationally, Rostenkowski played a major role in fashioning deals on Social Security solvency and deficit reduction. He won national support with a radio address countering Reagan’s tax proposals and used that backing as leverage in the 1986 legislation that streamlined federal income-tax laws.

Daniel David Rostenkowski was born Jan 2, 1928, in Chicago, the grandson of Polish immigrants. As a youth, when he went by Dan Rosten, he was a promising baseball player.


But baseball didn’t pan out, and politics was his birthright.

His grandfather Peter was active in Polish fraternal organizations and made a name in Democratic politics, serving as a delegate to the 1912 party convention in Baltimore. His father, Joe Rostenkowski, was alderman of the 32nd Ward from 1933 to 1955 and also served in the Illinois Legislature.

After serving in the Army in Korea in the late 1940s, the younger Rostenkowski returned to Chicago and got an investigator’s job in the city’s corporation counsel’s office with the help of his father. In 1951, he married the former LaVerne Pirkins.

The next year, at 23, he successfully ran for his father’s old seat in the state Legislature. After one term in the Illinois House and two more in the state Senate — by most accounts of the time boisterously corrupt institutions, but fine places to learn the art of horse-trading — he ran for the House of Representatives from the 8th District with Mayor Richard J. Daley’s blessing. He won by a wide margin in 1958 and was off to Washington at 31.


Rostenkowski was handily reelected, even as he was occasionally nicked by trouble or whiffs of scandal.

In 1963, the elder Mayor Daley criticized him for using Democratic Party money to pay tickets issued to residents of the 32nd Ward. He admitting doing so, calling it “good politics.”

A 1977 Chicago Tribune investigation found he had loaded his congressional payroll with friends and business associates and was renting office space in his district in a building owned by his two sisters.

In 1986, he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in Wisconsin. He admitted wrongdoing, and when asked how much he had to drink, he replied, “Enough, obviously,” and paid a fine.


But his real problems began with a seemingly minor scandal involving postage stamps in 1992. He and several other lawmakers were accused of abusing congressional postal privileges to make money. Over two years, investigations by both federal authorities and enterprising reporters deepened, and Rostenkowski was accused of abusing the perks of his office.

He was indicted in 1994 on 17 counts, including mail and wire fraud and obstruction of justice. Rostenkowski was accused of hiring ghost employees, keeping office slush funds and showering gifts on political supporters and friends — time-honored methods of conducting political business in Chicago.

He ran a lackluster campaign for reelection in 1994 and five months after the indictments were issued he was unseated by a political neophyte, Republican Michael Patrick Flanagan, who served one term in Congress. Flanagan’s successor was Rod Blagojevich, who now awaits a jury verdict on federal charges of trying to use the governor’s office for personal and political gain.

In 1996, Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to two felony counts of mail fraud for misusing taxpayer money. But he remained unrepentant and argued the government had singled him out “to be held up by law enforcement as an example.”


In a 1998 radio appearance, he ruefully acknowledged the implications of how his political career came to an end.

“With all the legislation that I passed, with all the history that I’ve written with respect to the economics of the country, they’re always going to say there’s a felon named Danny Rostenkowski,” he said. “That’s going to be the obituary.”

Besides his wife, Rostenkowski is survived by three daughters, Gayle, Dawn and Kristie, all of whom use the last name Rosten; and a grandson.