By Shane Nicholson
ROCKFORD — Former Congressman John B. Anderson, who represented Illinois’ 16th district for 20 years and ran as an independent in the 1980 presidential election, passed away Sunday his family said. He was 95.
Born to Swedish immigrants E. Albin Anderson and the former Mabel Enda Ring on Feb. 15, 1922, Anderson was raised in Rockford, graduating from Rockford Central High School before enrolling at the University of Illinois. Following his graduation from U of I, he enrolled in law school at the Urbana campus, but his studies were delayed when he joined the U.S. Army in 1943, serving as a staff sergeant in France through the end of World War II and collecting four battle stars.
He returned to U of I to finish his J.D. in 1946 and began practicing law in Rockford before moving to the east coast to attend Harvard beginning in 1949, where he attained a master of laws degree. Following a second brief stint practicing law in Rockford, he moved into the U.S. Foreign Service, where he served in Germany from 1952-1955. During this time, he met his wife of 64 years, Keke Machakos, who was working as a passport photographer in Washington D.C. They were married in 1953.
Anderson returned home and ran a successful campaign for Winnebago County State’s Attorney in 1956. He served one term ahead of a run for Congress in 1960, winning the 16th district seat by more than 45,000 votes. Anderson served from 1961-1981, eventually becoming the Chairman of the House Republican Conference, the party’s No. 3 position in the lower house.
He would ultimately cast the deciding vote for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which became Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, after whipping votes from his Republican colleagues to support the measure.
“Anderson accomplished one of the rarest deeds in Congress,” wrote John Averill, in the Washington Post. “[He] actually persuaded some of his Republican colleagues to switch at the last minute from opposition to support of the bill.
“Overnight, Anderson has become a hero, not only to the civil rights forces, but also to Republican liberals and moderates who hanker for an attractive new face and a voice of eloquence to assume the lead in offering new solutions to the nation’s great domestic crises.”
“He’s the smartest guy in Congress,” quipped Gerald Ford in 1973, “but he insists on voting his conscience instead of party.”
After a challenge for the Republican nomination for President in 1980 proved unsuccessful, Anderson ran on the national ticket as an independent, collecting 6.6 percent of the vote. His split from the GOP was predicated on the party’s lack of support for the Equal Rights Amendment, which Anderson backed.
“After spending an adult life of unfulfilled dreams and promises, a man has to prove something to himself,” he told the Washington Post in Nov. 1979. “Maybe I’m trying to sum it all up to convince myself that everything I’ve been doing makes sense.”
“What he did was prove, again, that here is a remarkable candidate of courage and integrity, one who refuses to shape his plans and his principles to conform to this or that pressure group,” wrote the Chicago Sun-Times in March 1980. “Instead, he values the welfare of all Americans.”
President Jimmy Carter’s campaign attacked Anderson’s civil rights record in Congress in a series of ads, drawing criticism from the media and the Rockford-native. “You ask any civil rights leader who was responsible for getting the 1968 open housing act and they will tell you John Anderson,” the congressman said.
At one point, Carter refused to take the stage in debate with Anderson and Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. Anderson and Reagan shared a stage in Baltimore on Sept. 21 with Anderson coming out on top, according to contemporary media accounts, but the show was enough to propel Reagan to the head of the field.
The Illinois Republican, who had been polling in the mid-20s prior to the debate, slowly faded away as Reagan eventually took the White House. Anderson registered what is still the seventh-best showing from an independent in the presidential race since the Civil War.
“I had no great sense of failure,” he would later tell author Jim Mason for his book, No Holding Back: The 1980 John B. Anderson Presidential Campaign. “I didn’t come out of the campaign with the sense that I’d thrown my career away or thrown my life away on what was a fruitless, feckless endeavor. I felt that I had made my mark on the pages of history and laid down some markers for others possibly to follow.”
Rockford resident and founding director of the Northern Illinois Food Bank Marge Bevers recounted the influence of Anderson during a phone call, Monday.
“When I moved here to Rockford, I was so happy he was going to be my congressman,” she says. “He really taught me to work locally but to think globally, and I’ve tried to do that in everything I’ve done in life.”
Bevers worked on Anderson’s 1980 presidential campaign and says that his inspiration and motivation guided much of her professional career and political activism.
“I’m really sorry he’s gone,” she added. “The gift he gave to those of us inspired by him will never go away.”
Adam Kinzinger, the current 16th district representative, called Anderson a great servant to his city and country. “We are better for his candor, his focus, and his honesty – and his pragmatic approach and self-awareness continues to inspire me on a daily basis.”
Anderson spent his later career as a visiting professor at a number of universities, including his alma mater, and continued to press for nationwide political reform. He helped found FairVote, an electoral reform advocacy group, in 1992 serving as its chair from 1996-2008 and on its board until his death.
“It seems to me the mystique of the two-party system has been so crafted in the minds of many people as an institutional prop,” Anderson told reporters during the 1980 campaign. “In an age of instability and rapid change, I think it’s a little too much for people to comprehend and absorb my message in a relatively short time . . . That’s been a very difficult thing to overcome—the institutional framework we’ve lived with the last 200 years.”
Anderson resided in Washington D.C. He is survived by his wife, five children and 11 grandchildren. R.