Here’s a prediction: No Democrat will vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who has now been accused by two women of committing sexual assault in his youth.
One reason: Any Democrat who helps place a purported sexual predator on the court will risk suffering the same fate as Alan Dixon, the Illinois senator who lost his seat after voting to confirm Clarence Thomas in 1991.
A journeyman legislator, Dixon, who died in 2014, was little known outside the state he represented from 1981 to 1993. Unlike his seatmate, Paul Simon, Dixon never wrote books or ran for president while in office. His only goal was to bring home the bacon to Illinois: “I never wanted to be a national senator,” he once told the Sun-Times. “It may sound silly, but what really turned me on was to do things for my state.”
Dixon went along and got along, drinking beer with Democrats and Republicans. Those glad-handing qualities helped him hustle up from Belleville police magistrate to state legislator to Illinois Secretary of State to U.S. Senator, and earned him the nickname “Al the Pal.” But they didn’t prepare him for the partisanship that began to consume Washington in the 1990s.
Dixon believed that a president had a right to put his nominees on the Supreme Court. “That’s what elections are all about,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Gentleman from Illinois.
He also believed Thomas had never sexually harassed Anita Hill, a former subordinate: “It was a ‘he said-she said’ affair,” he wrote, “but I thought all of the surrounding circumstances supported his story.”
So on October 15, 1991, against the advice of his staff, Dixon voted aye — one of 52 Senators to do so.
Back in Illinois, his fellow Democrats were outraged. Carol Moseley Braun, then the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, announced she would challenge Dixon in the March primary.
Later, in January of 1992, Dixon appeared before a meeting of DuPage County Democrats and was booed for nearly two hours.
And finally, when Dixon asked a longtime fundraiser to lunch, he got this rebuff: “Alan, I am not going to help you and I don’t want lunch. My God, even [Democratic Senator] Howell Heflin of Alabama voted against Clarence Thomas. In fact, I want you to know that I am going to do all I can to send you back to Belleville!”
“Sadly,” Dixon wrote, “that was my first really strong indication my goose was cooked.”
Dixon lost the 1992 primary to Moseley Braun, and the race reverberated in Illinois politics for decades. That year, a young Harvard Law graduate named Barack Obama led an effort called Project VOTE, which aimed to register 150,000 African-American voters. Having a black candidate, Mosley Braun, at the top of the ticket made the task much easier, netting Obama his first political success.
Obama eventually won that Senate seat himself, after Moseley Braun was defeated for re-election, and her replacement, Peter Fitzgerald, declined to seek a second term. (In fact, the Tribune’s Eric Zorn once suggested that Dixon’s vote for Thomas set in motion a chain of events that led to Obama’s election as President)
Clarence Thomas was the last Supreme Court justice confirmed by a Senate controlled by a party opposite the President’s. On Thursday, Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, is scheduled to testify before the Senate in a hearing that has already drawn comparisons to Anita Hill’s testimony against Thomas.
Before Blasey Ford stepped forward, there was speculation that Democrats up for re-election in Trump states would face pressure to confirm Kavanaugh to avoid alienating Republican voters. Those include Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Doug Jones of Alabama, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Now, they’re in an even tighter bind: A vote for confirmation would enrage the Democrats who provide the vast majority of their votes. The nation is far more partisan than it was during Dixon’s tenure, and Democrats are far less tolerant of sexual misconduct in this era of #MeToo. Republicans in centrist states — say, Dean Heller in Nevada, which Clinton won in 2016 — face the same quandary in the opposite direction.
And Dixon, after all, was done in by members of his own party. “[M]y basic undoing,” reads his autobiography, “was the loss of my traditionally liberal base and certain active women’s organizations as a result of my Clarence Thomas vote.”
Alan Dixon spent 43 years in politics, but he’s better remembered for the way his career ended than for anything he did while in office. The Illinois primary which ended that career ushered in a new era of American politics, and now looms over another Supreme Court nomination 27 years later.