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Abner Mikva, Illinois Political Legend and Obama Mentor, Dies at 90

CHICAGO — Liberal Illinois politician Abner Mikva, who served in all three branches of federal government and in state government, has died. He was 90.

Mikva died Monday of cancer in hospice care at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Brian Brady, national director of Mikva Challenge, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. Mikva Challenge is a nonprofit leadership organization that the statesman founded. Brady said he learned of the death from Mikva's daughters.

Mikva, a liberal voice and stalwart of Illinois' political landscape for decades, was most recently active in pushing for the U.S. Senate to consider the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

Image: Abner Mikva
Abner Mikva in Chicago on July 7, 2004. NAM Y HUH / AP File

President Barack Obama, who was a community organizer in Chicago, remembered Mikva as a mentor who encouraged him to pursue public service after graduating from law school at Harvard.

"He saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself, but I know why he did it — Ab represented the best of public service himself and he believed in empowering the next generation of young people to shape our country," the president said in a statement.

"We’re all better off because we were sent Ab Mikva, and because Ab in turn sent us forward to do big things," Obama added.

Mikva often told of how he initially tried to get involved in Chicago politics but was told: "We don't want nobody nobody sent."

Brady called Mikva "the ideal public servant" who was saddened by growing bitter animosity between the parties in Washington.

RELATED: Mikva Awarded Medal of Freedom

"He thought it had a lot to do with people not socializing together anymore," Brady said of partisan rancor in the Capitol. "He had dinner and played poker two or three times a week with Republican leaders. He thought the days of real relationships don't exist right now."

President Barack Obama awarded Mikva the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

Mikva was elected in 1956 to the first of five consecutive terms in the Illinois General Assembly, where he sponsored fair employment practices legislation, open housing legislation and labored to overhaul the Criminal Code. He was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968 and served for five terms as a member of the Judiciary Committee and then the Ways and Means Committee.

Appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Mikva served 15 years, the last four as Chief Judge. In 1994, Judge Mikva resigned from the bench to become White House Counsel to President Bill Clinton.

Mikva leaves behind a wife, Zoe, their three daughters and seven grandchildren.