James “Pate” Philip May 26, 1930-Nov. 21, 2023

A man more progressive than his words

Former Illinois Senate President James “Pate” Philip, the last Republican to lead a legislative chamber in Illinois, reflected a bygone era when DuPage County was a conservative bastion and Republicans had power in the General Assembly. In the two decades since Philip lost his role as Senate president, Republican influence in the Statehouse has atrophied to the point that the GOP makes up less than one-third of each chamber. Philip died Nov. 21 at age 93 in his Wood Dale home after a short illness. He took pride in his blue-collar roots. Philip began his career driving a truck delivering loaves of bread to grocery stores across DuPage County and later rose to be a district sales manager for Pepperidge Farms. He quipped when he met with Gov. James R. Thompson and the other legislative leaders, “It was four lawyers and a bread salesman.” Philip served for 36 years in the legislature, beginning with eight in the House before moving to the state Senate, where he served for 28 years, becoming Senate president in 1993. He continued on as president for a decade before retiring in 2003 when Democrats took control of the chamber.  He was known to make blunt, racially tinged remarks. He suggested the Department of Children and Family Services was failing abused and neglected children because Black caseworkers weren’t taking action against bad parents. When the House pushed to increase welfare benefits, Philip said he would oppose it because recipients would spend the extra money on lottery tickets. And he said giving more state aid to Chicago Public Schools was “pouring money down a rat hole.” “He needs to be viewed through the lens of time,” said former state Sen. Christine Radogno, who represented Lemont as a Republican when Philip led her caucus. “Civil rights was still somewhat new when he started out in politics. Obviously, by the time he finished, it was much more mainstream. He was 93 – so he was born in 1930 – that was before civil rights. It was a different time. I look at other people that I know who were brought up during that time who made comments that may have been similar to that. But no, they were not racist. I know for a fact he had friends that were of other races.” Mike Lawrence, a senior adviser to former Gov. Jim Edgar, called Philip’s remarks “unfortunate” but added he didn’t believe Philip was a man consumed with hate. Radogno said Philip’s actions were often more progressive than his words. “He had five women in leadership. So even though he may say, ‘Yeah, you know, women belong at home barefoot and pregnant,’ I don’t think he really believed that; otherwise, he wouldn’t have had that kind of team surrounding him.” When Gov. George Ryan told reporters he would have trepidation personally pulling the switch to execute an inmate, Philip, a 1950s-era Marine, said he’d have no problem doing so. Ryan’s decisions to oppose the death penalty and support gun control were disappointments to Philip. “This was an issue that really divided him and George. He believed there was a place for the death penalty, without a doubt,” Radogno said. “I’m not sure if he sat there and had to be the one to pull the switch that he’d like that so much, but he was a believer.” Former Gov. Jim Edgar told Illinois Times Philip could, at times, be obstinate and refuse to call legislation for a vote. But alternately, Edgar said he always kept his word. “He could be very congenial. You could just sit down and talk, and just maybe stay off of politics or some social issues. He was not in any way a progressive on those things at all.” Philip opposed abortion rights, opposed gun control measures and fought Illinois ratifying the federal Equal Rights Amendment. But he wasn’t as conservative on fiscal matters, Edgar said, noting that Philip supported tax hikes and consistently supported increasing state spending on projects in DuPage County and other areas represented by his members. Carter Hendron, who was Philip’s chief of staff, said his former boss was comfortable interacting with people from all walks of life. “He would talk to the owner of an establishment and then sit down and have a cup of coffee with the waiter,” he recalled. “He mixed with everybody. He knew everybody. He liked everybody. He was a genuinely nice person. You never saw him lose his temper. He commanded enormous loyalty from his staff.” Former state Sen. Walter Dudycz, who represented Chicago, recalled the first time he had lunch with Philip in Springfield. “It was a corner bar, and we went there and had a beer and a bowl of greasy chili. And he loved it. He didn’t push around his fame or his power. … I told him a hundred times – or a thousand times – my three heroes are John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Pate Philip.” Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, was a legislative reporter who routinely covered James Philip.

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

Illinois Times has provided readers with independent journalism for almost 50 years, from news and politics to arts and culture.

Your support will help cover the costs of editorial content published each week. Without local news organizations, we would be less informed about the issues that affect our community..

Click here to show your support for community journalism.

Got something to say?

Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

Comments (0)
Add a Comment