Richard Phelan, former Cook County Board president who restored abortion services, dies at 86

Richard Phelan emerged as a rising political star in the 1990s, winning a term as Cook County Board president and restoring abortion services at the county hospital system despite his Roman Catholic faith — but he fell short in his bid to move up to the governor’s mansion.

After a career as a trial lawyer, Mr. Phelan was thrust into the limelight in 1988 when he was appointed as special outside counsel to probe then-Speaker of the House Jim Wright of Texas.

From there, he moved easily into the world of Chicago politics.

“As a trial lawyer, he took very naturally to the performance elements of politics,” said political consultant David Axelrod. “He was a tall, good looking guy who spoke the idiom of the town.”

Mr. Phelan died peacefully in his sleep Tuesday night at his home in north suburban Lake Forest, his family said in a news release announcing his death. The cause of death was metastatic cancer. He was 86.

His political climb began with the Wright appointment.

Despite criticism that Mr. Phelan could not properly investigate a fellow Democrat, he detailed allegations that Wright improperly accepted gifts in a televised hearing of the U.S House Ethics Committee in 1990. Wright resigned soon after.

Mr. Phelan gained notoriety from those high-profile hearings and turned his attention back to Chicago, where he successfully ran for County Board president, serving one term from 1990 to 1994.

“The Wright investigation gave him a patina of reform that was important in that race,” said Axelrod, who served as Phelan’s media consultant during the campaign to replace longtime County Board President George Dunne.

Two future Chicago mayors, Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot, were also on the campaign staff.

Once he was elected board president, Mr. Phelan used his executive powers to restore abortion services to the county’s health care provider after they had been banned by Dunne.

As a practicing Roman Catholic, like Dunne, Mr. Phelan made the decision despite criticism from some that it defied his faith.

“But he felt it was the right thing to do,” said Eric Adelstein, his former campaign manager.

Mr. Phelan’s campaign field director, Peter Giangreco, said the decision was “groundbreaking” at the time.

“There were a lot of powerful Catholic politicians that we had to take on to do that,” Giangreco said.

The Chicago archbishop at the time, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, even pressured Mr. Phelan to drop the measure.

Mr. Phelan said the real issue was that not everyone could afford an abortion.

“The government is just simply providing the option,” he said at the time. “It’s not advocating either side of that option.”

During his tenure, Mr. Phelan also helped construct a new Cook County hospital and led the county’s acquisition and reopening of Provident Hospital on the South Side.

“He was a reformer, but a pragmatic one,” Axelrod said. “He was game for what needed to be done.”

He’s been honored for his work for women’s reproductive rights. Planned Parenthood Illinois Action named a yearly award given in his name, the Richard J. Phelan Profile in Courage Award.

After an unsuccessful run for governor in 1994, Mr. Phelan returned to practicing law, serving as managing partner of law firm Foley & Lardner. The firm merged in 2000 with Hopkins & Sutter.

Mr. Phelan married his second wife, Barbara, in 1991 after they met on a blind date.

“Politics could use someone of Dick’s convictions today,” Barbara Phelan said in a statement announcing his death. “He advocated for equality for women as a lawyer and as an elected official.”

In retirement, the couple split their time between Lake Forest and Naples. Mr. Phelan started a lecture series and remained an avid reader and runner who jogged seven days a week, his wife said in the announcement.

Mr. Phelan grew up in Ravenswood on the North Side. His father, Jack Phelan, was a Chicago Democratic precinct captain and former football captain of DePaul University.

Mr. Phelan’s first wife, Carol, died of a heart attack in 1989 after a 5-year battle with breast cancer. They were married 27 years and raised three children.

The tragedy happened as Mr. Phelan entered his first run for public office. “He decided to stay in the race despite his grief,” family said in their announcement.

Before entering politics, Mr. Phelan helped start Phelan, Pope & John in 1976, a firm which had more than 100 lawyers. He helped mentor lawyers in that firm, including Bill Kunkle, who prosecuted John Wayne Gacy, and future Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine.

In 1985 he served as president of the Chicago Bar Association, the same year he successfully defended Jewel Food Stores against a class action lawsuit alleging it sold salmonella-tainted milk. Mr. Phelan and Jewel won a jury verdict and saved the company from bankruptcy.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Phelan is survived by three children, Jane, Anne and Mark Phelan, and six grandchildren, Savannah, Emma, Grace, Luke, Leo and Mary Carol. One grandchild, Caroline, preceded her grandfather in death at age 16.

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