More Than 30 Seconds With Al Hofeld 

You've seen the ads, now read an interview with the man who would be senator.

Al Hofeld is a candidate for the U.S. Senate, running against incumbent Alan Dixon and Recorder of Deeds Carol Moseley Braun. You have probably seen his ads on television by now. With little political experience, Hofeld is portraying himself as an outsider, an antipolitician. His critics accuse him of using his personal fortune to try to buy a seat in the Senate. The press has portrayed him as a candidate recruited by media adviser David Axelrod.

As a plaintiffs' attorney, Hofeld has been involved in a number of high-profile cases. He successfully sued Du Pont, winning a $26 million judgment for the victim of side effects of one of their drugs. He represents the Illinois Masonic worker who stuck himself with a needle that he thinks may have been contaminated with the AIDS virus, and he also represents the family of children who were playing at the same hospital with used needles. He won a recent case involving teenagers who were killed on Lake Shore Drive on their way to a rock concert.

Hofeld has served as president of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. He was on an advisory committee for Richard M. Daley when Daley ran for state's attorney in 1984.

His politics are an unknown factor, and he is largely known to the public through a series of television ads done by Axelrod. In the ads, Hofeld portrays himself as a fighter for the rights of the "little guy."

Hofeld has a big smile and a firm handshake. We spoke recently in his North Dearborn Street law office. The following is an edited transcript of our interview.

James Hawking: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is your family background, where you live . . .

Albert Hofeld: I was born on the south side of Chicago in Hyde Park. My mother and father were divorced when I was two and a half, and I was sent out to Idaho to live with my grandparents. My grandfather was a cattle rancher, and my mother a secretary. So I grew up from ages 2 1/2 to 11 in Twin Falls, Idaho, a rural town of 12,000. I grew up with my mother and my grandfather and grandmother. When my grandfather died we moved back to the Chicago area, Evanston. From age 11 on I grew up in Evanston, graduated from Evanston High School. And lived with my mother and my grandmother. I don't know how detailed you want to get. When it came time to go to college I could not afford to go to college. Luckily I got a scholarship to Harvard, a four-year academic scholarship. I went in the Army after that. When it came time to go to law school I could not afford that, but I fortunately got some loans. I went to the University of Chicago Law School. I went into the practice of law as a trial lawyer, trying basically product liability cases, personal injury cases, medical malpractice, that kind of thing. When I was 32, I set out on my own to establish my own practice. I worked for years like anybody trying to establish their own business. I know what it is to be broke, I know what it is to get loans, I know what it is to pay interest. I have practiced law for 27 years, finally built up a successful practice, paid back all the loans and that's the professional part of it. The practice that I've had has been basically representing average men and women who have become victims of negligent corporations. Insurance companies, special interests. I have, in addition to taking on corporations like Du Pont and General Motors, done a large amount of pro bono work.

The year I was president of the Illinois State Bar Association was 1983-'84. So I was put on a commission to improve the justice system in Cook County, and I served on that for about three years to try to prevent another Greylord from ever happening. When I was president of the state bar, I fought to make organs more available to recipients who needed organ transplants. We were able to amend the statute on organ donors in Springfield. I exposed unfair, fraudulent, illegal practices by nursing homes and reported those to the proper authorities. I've been interested in ethics in government, sat on the [Chicago] ethics board as chairman for two and a half years.

JH: You started the think tank in the bar association?

AH: Yes I did. That was a proud accomplishment. It may be technically still in existence, but it is not functioning any longer the way I thought it should function. My concept was to establish an Institute for Public Affairs that would identify certain social issues that would help people in this state. The concept was that we would have a governing board comprised of highly respected individuals which would identify the social issues, and we did. Cardinal Bernardin was on the board. Saul Bellow was on the board. The University of Illinois president, Stan Ikenberry, the head of the Tribune, an Illinois Supreme Court justice. The concept was that the Illinois state bar would get two young lawyers just out of law school and employ them working on these issues. The two issues we identified first were the nursing homes and the organ transplant. These young lawyers went to work on the issues. They came up with results, one written into law and the other reported to various authorities. That institute continued to function after I left, then I don't know what happened. Maybe the successor presidents decided to put efforts elsewhere.

JH: When you mention the ethics board I can't let that pass without mentioning Gary O'Neill. Was he yours? [Gary O'Neill was named executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics in late 1989. At the time, he was being sought on a battery complaint in Louisiana and had been accused of financial irregularities in a suit filed by that state's ethics board. He left town and was arrested for drunken driving on the way back to New Orleans.]

AH: No. Well, yes and no. When I came on the board, most of the work on Gary O'Neill had already been done. There were four nominees, of which he was one. However, I say yes because I was part of the final vote that approved Gary O'Neill. Let me say to you that the background check that was done on Gary O'Neill in my opinion was more than adequate. We talked to 10, 15 people down in New Orleans and got glowing reports on Gary O'Neill. It points out one of the difficulties in our system to get an accurate background on somebody.

The moment I found out, I'll never forget. I was sitting at this desk. We had filed a suit for the Corwin family against Laurie Dann and her family. [Hofeld represents the family of the Winnetka child killed by Laurie Dann.] I got a call from AP or UPI, and they were talking about the Dann case, and it just came over the wire at that point that Gary O'Neill had been charged with something. I hung up the phone, got him over here within ten minutes. I asked him if any of this was true. He denied it. I said I want to hear from the federal district attorney down there that you're not a target, that you're not involved. He said, "It will happen today." It never happened. I called an emergency meeting of the ethics board the next morning, early. He suggested that perhaps he should resign. I suggested that that was a good idea. Met the press, and it was over.

JH: What are your ties to the regular Democrats, to the independents?

AH: I'm a lifelong Democrat. I was president of the Young Democrats in Evanston when there weren't very many, back in 1965 or '66. I ran Paul Simon's campaign in Evanston back in 1972 when he ran for governor against Dan Walker and lost. I have always supported Democratic candidates and causes my whole life. What was your question again?

JH: Ties to the regulars or independents?

AH: As to my ties with Daley, I supported Daley in his run for state's attorney and, well, I can't say in every mayoral bid because I supported Harold Washington in the year that the three of them were running.

JH: '83?

AH: I supported Harold Washington because I spoke on his behalf on the issue of whether the fact that he had been disbarred or suspended some, I don't remember, 20 or 30 years ago. That didn't mean he couldn't be a good mayor. After that I supported Daley in his runs. Whatever they were. You're aware of my voting record, so let me bring it up. I voted in eight of the last ten general elections, which is an 80 percent voting record, which I don't consider bad. They don't go back before the last ten elections. I wish they would because I voted in a ton of them before that. The criticism of me is that I didn't vote in a number of primary elections, I think about one-half or so. What I've said is that it's true that I didn't vote in a number of primary elections. I don't know whether that's me letting down the system or the system letting me down. I didn't think in a number of those primaries that there were real choices. I truly was disaffected, like a lot of people. I didn't vote in this last primary, the Daley primary, because I thought it was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected. I have said that I really had a choice to make in my own life. I can tune out or get involved in it. I decided to get involved.

JH: What's your motivation in seeking the Senate seat?

AH: Good question. I have been lucky in my life. I really wouldn't be a lawyer if someone wasn't there to give me financial assistance. I wouldn't be a college graduate if I didn't have a scholarship. I've been lucky. I've worked very hard, but I've been lucky. The bottom line is I want to give something back. I have always had the feeling that I wanted to give something back, but I didn't know exactly how to do it. I believe very much in what John Kennedy used to say. The proverb goes, to whom much has been given much has been expected.

When the gulf war began and I saw the result, I said to myself this great country can go halfway around the world and find the money, find the resolve, to move an army and defeat an enemy and liberate a small emirate, but we can't find the will and the energy to address the financial problems that are on our own doorstep. I find that absolutely disgusting and shameful. Then I started looking around, and I saw politicians in Washington who were so much into the special interest they had forgotten about the national interest. Alan Dixon is absolutely out of touch with the needs of the people of Illinois and has been for years. Then that Thomas vote came along. I saw, I couldn't believe that my senator was putting Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. I couldn't believe that he didn't pick up the telephone to answer or have someone answer 133,000 attempts at phoning him the day before the vote. Paul Simon kept his office open on Columbus Day. Most of the senators kept their offices open. That absolutely angered me.

The gulf war really started me thinking in terms of jobs, in terms of health care, in terms of affording a college education. The Thomas vote was simply a development along the way. The reason that I got into this race was because I saw a country that I loved coming apart at the seams, going down the tubes, not dealing with the real problems of the people. I said to myself, I'm lucky enough to be able to be in a position where I can jump in and try to make a difference. That's my motivation. I do not want to be a professional politician. I have no interest in that. I have an interest in trying to make a difference, and I'll tell you how in terms of the programs that I support. I would not serve in the Senate beyond two terms. I've said that publicly, that's my pledge. I have no interest in being there for a long time. If you can't get the job done in 12 years, you'll never get the job done.

JH: Are you in favor of the term limitation?

AH: I favor the concept of term limitations. What bothers me a little bit about term limitations is that it cuts off some of the good people who are there. So therefore, my position is I would prefer to see campaign finance reform. If we can achieve campaign finance reform, and I'll be happy to tell what I mean by that, then we are going to free ordinary citizens who can afford to run for public office. If somebody in the Senate or the Congress isn't doing a good job, all of a sudden you'll have four or six other candidates, and somebody'll knock him off, and you won't even need term limitations. If we can't get finance reform, then I favor term limitations.

JH: By campaign finance reform, you mean PAC reform?

AH: What I mean by that is four things. First, an absolute limit on the amount that is to be spent on a given office. Two, public funding, governmental financing of some portion of that amount so that the entire amount doesn't fall on the shoulders of the individual citizen. Thirdly, as a requirement of the licensing procedure of our media networks, they must permit free air time to the candidates. That's really the engine that has driven up the cost of these elections--TV. Lastly, either the elimination or, if we can't eliminate PACs, the limitation of PACs so they're not the force that they are today. If you do that, then many people, average people who have ideas and who have leadership, can come forward and run for office. If we had that situation, we wouldn't need term limitation.

JH: You're not accepting money from PACs, but you've given money to the Trial Lawyers' PAC in the past, and you've worked with the PACs.

AH: When I was the Trial Lawyers' president in '82-'83, we had a PAC, and we gave $26,000 to the legislators and our opponents gave $435,000 to the legislature, and that means the insurance companies, the manufacturing industry, and the medical providers. The next year when I was president of the state bar association, '83-'84, we had a similar situation and we were outbidded about 11 to 1. I learned two things from those situations. One is the little guy never makes out. The other is that PACs really boil down to nothing more than a bidding war. Because I know that, because I had that experience with those PACs, I have said that I will not accept any PAC special interest money in this campaign.

I am beholden to no one. I want to stay that way. I think PACs ought to be eliminated from our system. Now there's a case, a Supreme Court case, called Sun Oil. We may not be able to eliminate PACs altogether, but we can limit their giving ability.

JH: Going back to that Trial Lawyers' experience, at the time you were working against the limitation of lawyers' fees as a part of the tort reform.

AH: When are you talking about--'86? In '86 when there was the malpractice reform act, I was down there. The Trial Lawyers essentially--I think our initial position was that we were against any ineffective reform. There was effective reform that we went along with. I think our final position on the fees was that we agreed to the limitation. That became written into law. You will notice that when the Trial Lawyers appealed that statute, we never appealed the fee portion of that statute. The fee portion that you're referring to, instead of a lawyer getting a flat one-third, he gets one-third of the first $150,000, 25 percent of the amount between $150,000 and a million, and one-fifth of everything over a million.

JH: Who are some of the senators you admire the most, past and present? Whom would you model yourself upon?

AH: Good question. When I think of what a credible leader should be, I really think of John Kennedy.

JH: As a senator?

AH: Not as a senator, as a president. I don't know that I can go through a list of senators and tell you which one. I don't think we have a lot who I would want to model myself after. I'm just telling you as I see things, it's really John Kennedy. I say that because he inspired people, he inspired Americans to do things for their country. And it was real, it wasn't phony. It was so real that after his death, members of his own staff ran for office. I always saw that as a way in which he touched them. He didn't get much legislation passed, but he believed that political service was ennobling. You could make a real contribution to your society, and I believe that too.

The memory I have of John Kennedy is that I was in the Army when he and Nixon had the debate. I was on perimeter defense and was sleeping in a sleeping bag on some field. I had a little portable radio, and I was listening to one of the debates. I felt that Kennedy won.

JH: Did you approach David Axelrod or did he approach you?

AH: Trying to remember, I believe I approached him.

JH: But you weren't solicited to run?

AH: No. In this process when I was thinking of what I wanted to do, I had known David only in passing from Daley's campaigns. When I was giving thought to possibly running I called him, went over there to talk to him. I asked, "What do you think?"

JH: You've been compared to Cook County Board president Richard Phelan. Do you think that's fair or unfair, flattering or unflattering?

AH: Dick Phelan and I are two very different people. I've known Dick for years. Our backgrounds are very different. I was raised in a single-parent family by a mother. His father was a lawyer, actually. Our practices have been very different. Dick represented insurance companies in all of his practice except for a few years, and I've been on the other side in representing the injured victim. There is a comparison, I understand, in that we both left private practice to run.

JH: And the use of personal money.

AH: Yes, but I think the comparison stops there.

JH: What committee assignments would you seek?

AH: Not likely to happen. As a matter of fact, they keep telling me I can have no committee assignments because of the special-interest campaign or anti-special-interest campaign I've been running.

I would be interested in the committee that deals with health care, or a committee that deals with the economy. Perhaps the judiciary because that's my general area of expertise. I don't hold out any high hopes.

JH: Senator Dixon was originally assigned to Agriculture and Banking. He left Agriculture to go on Armed Services.

AH: I think that's really part of the problem. I think Alan Dixon is part of the problem and not the solution in this sense. He sits on the banking committee, and he takes money from the banking industry in large amounts, from the banks and the insurance companies and the savings-and-loans while he's regulating them. He sits on the Armed Services Committee, and he takes money from defense contractors while he's awarding contracts. The fact of the matter is that it's not illegal to give PAC money, and it's not illegal to receive PAC money. But when you take hundreds of thousands of dollars from these special interests, how can you possibly be objective? And that's my criticism, and that's why I will not do that.

JH: The other issues--health care, for instance. Do you support Senator [Bob] Kerrey's bill or any alternative bills?

AH: I have said that there are five elements that are important to me that must be in a bill for me to support it. First, guaranteed coverage for every American. Second, the prohibition of insurance companies excluding people for preexisting conditions. That absolutely has to stop. Third, cost containment on doctors and hospital fees. Fourth, cost containment on pharmaceutical fees. You'll notice none of the bills have that. Drug prices are ripping people off. When I say none of the bills have that, I'm not talking about coverage for pills or medication, I'm talking about a cost containment ceiling, that this is all that will be paid for this particular medication. Lastly, the ability of every American to see a doctor of their choice without extra cost. So that I could support either of the bills in the Congress, the pay-or-play, the single-payer bills, as long as they have those five points. And I believe that any system is better than what we have now. When I say any system, I mean the system that those bills would set up. With 37 million Americans uninsured and many more a pink slip away from being uninsured.

But to answer your next question, I am not going to be politically expedient about health care. It would be easy for me to slap my name on a bill, like Senator Dixon did on the Mitchell bill and say he's going to fight for health care. I think we're not going to get national health care until we take on and reach some position with the insurance companies, with the pharmaceutical companies, with hospitals and medical providers. And hammering out a bill that's fairer to all parties and will give us the best health care system we can have, and a bill that we can afford in terms of knowing what it costs and where the money comes from, it's not a simple process. And for politicians to make it sound like a simple process is doing a disservice to the public.

JH: Any thoughts about AIDS? You have been involved in AIDS issues as a litigator.

AH: I believe that the government has to take a greater role in leadership on the question of AIDS. I believe that we need to spend more money on AIDS research and treatment. I believe we need more money in terms of AIDS education so that people understand that you don't judge the person, you deal with the disease.

I lost a friend to AIDS two months ago, three months ago, a wonderful individual. Actually I've lost two. I don't think there's anything more tragic in our society today.

JH: Other specific policies? A jobs program?

AH: America needs to take a bold short-term step and a bold long-term step in order to deal with the economy. [Scornfully] Bush in his state of the union address! We need to put people back to work, and we need to do it yesterday. Building transportation systems, building bridges, repairing dilapidated schools, building sewer systems, the list is endless. That alone, of course, is not going to do it. We need to encourage businesses to give incentives for retraining.

We have to stop defending countries which can afford to defend themselves. Japan for instance. We spend over $150 billion a year defending countries [that could defend themselves].

We need to assure that foreign markets are open to us the way ours are open to foreign nations so that their dumping isn't permitted. Is this the America that we want? That's when we have to get tough on ourselves and say the future of this country isn't in Washington. The future of this country is with the little guy. We're not going to draw down that national debt until we're productive again. Investing in plants, in retooling, and expansion here in this country. We've got to wake up, and we've got to wake up the sleeping giant.

JH: There are some questions I'd like to ask about things you've brought up implicitly. About labor policy. Worker replacement.

AH: You know what Motorola's doing. They're taking 7 percent of their payroll. They're funding "Motorola university." They're retraining their workers. Even those who've been there are being upwardly trained for skilled jobs.

The strikebreaker bill. [A bill to make scabs illegal was introduced in the U.S. Senate.] I think the people of Illinois need a senator who would have signed on to that bill from the first day he took his seat, as opposed to a senator like Alan Dixon who didn't sign on to the bill until he felt he might lose his seat. Do you know how long it took him to get on that bill? Over a year. The one thing we may have accomplished so far is my getting into this race forced him to get on to the strikebreaker bill.

JH: I assume you were against fast-track [for the trade agreement with Mexico].

AH: I have said that at a minimum I would not sign a treaty that does not apply the same environmental standards, labor standards, health and safety standards that exist in our country. While I'm interested--after all, Mexico is our third-best trading partner--in establishing good relations with Mexico, and free trade or fair trade with Mexico, I would say fair trade, I really am terribly concerned about the jobs that would go out of the country to Mexico. Unless Mexico has the same standards, I would be against that.

JH: Why would you be a better replacement for Senator Dixon than Carol Moseley Braun would be?

AH: Fair question. I think Carol Moseley Braun is a capable woman. She is highly credentialed, she is well respected, and I think she's a decent person. I believe that we need more women in the U.S. Senate, and I believe that we need more minorities in the U.S. Senate, but I also believe that we need more outsiders in the U.S. Senate. I think my background qualifies me better for the kind of issues that this country is facing. By that I mean I have spent a professional life fighting corporations, special interests, powerful groups, in my practice. That's exactly what's needed in Washington. I spent eight years in a lawsuit against Du Pont getting them to recognize that they had a drug on the market that was dangerous.

JH: Coumadin.

AH: That's a widely taken drug in the United States. Fortunately, the side effect that was involved in the lawsuit has a fairly low incidence, but when it strikes, it's either gangrene, amputation, or death.

JH: Like the silicon?

AH: Du Pont suppressed the reports of amputation, gangrene, and death they were getting from the FDA, and Du Pont failed to warn the medical profession. They told the medical profession it was a little skin reaction. As a result of the verdict in that case, six months later Du Pont sent out a letter to 600,000 doctors, we just found out about this side effect, this is what it is, this is what it can do. As a result, doctors are better informed about other risks, and they can tell their patients.

JH: If it became clear that you and Ms. Braun were splitting a majority anti-Dixon vote, that neither of you could win, could you possibly do something like stepping aside, as she suggested in the recent letter?

AH: I didn't treat the letter seriously. I think it was a political maneuver. I can also say I would never send her a similar letter because I believe that every candidate has a right to be in the race, stay in the race. To fight for what they believe in.

I don't believe the scenario that you painted is going to happen. I believe that Senator Dixon is going to be unseated. I believe that there are more than enough votes against Senator Dixon to go around. I am amazed. I thought initially that Cook County was where most of the anti-Dixon votes were. I'll tell you, it's all over the state. Even in his own backyard in Belleville. We were down in Belleville campaigning, in Saint Clair County. We're hopeful of getting endorsements by Democratic officials sitting on the county board of Saint Clair County. In Madison County right next door, we're going to get endorsements of officials sitting on the Madison County Board.

JH: So you are unequivocally going to stay in the race.

AH: I am unequivocally going to stay in the race to the end.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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