Margaret Engel | Special to WJW
Sanford D. (Sandy) Horwitt, a political adviser, activist and author who wrote the definitive biography of pioneering community organizer Saul Alinsky, died March 12 at his home in Arlington. He was 79. The cause was gastric cancer.
Horwitt became inspired by Alinsky when he was a graduate student at San Francisco State University in the 1960s and began reading an interview of Alinsky published in Harper’s magazine. “Before I had finished,” Horwitt wrote in the 1989 biography “Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy,” “Alinsky had leaped from the pages, ten feet tall, the most fascinating person I had ever encountered.”
In his book, Horwitt introduced a new generation to Alinsky’s work that began in 1930s Chicago to empower ordinary people, often with colorful and creative tactics. “In short order,” Horwitt wrote, “Alinsky took a phrase from the dull vocabulary of social work — ‘community organization’ — and turned it into something controversial, important, even romantic.”
In the late 2000s, Horwitt and his book became a source for journalists and activists when Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both influenced by Alinsky, competed for the Democratic presidential nomination and sparked new interest in the community organizer.
“Alinsky’s influence, relevance, and legacy live on,” Horwitt wrote in his book, “…because he effectively advanced the great American radical ideal that democracy is for ordinary people.” This ideal was an organizing principle for Horwitt’s own professional life, which focused on inspiring people, especially students, to be politically engaged.
Horwitt also wrote a biography of U.S. Senator Russell D. Feingold (D-Wisc.) published in 2007, “Feingold: A New Democratic Party” (Simon & Schuster). He wrote a book, published in 2018, about federal judge and White House Counsel Abner J. Mikva, for whom Horwitt worked as a speechwriter and legislative aide when Mikva served as a U.S. Representative from the Chicago area. The book, “Conversations with Abner Mikva: Final Reflections on Chicago Politics, Democracy’s Future, and a Life of Public Service” (University Press of Kansas), doubled as a personal memoir for Horwitt.
Sanford Dale Horwitt was born on Sept. 19, 1942, in Milwaukee. His father, Morton, ran a wholesale oil and gasoline business. His mother, Mary (Strawitz) Horwitt, was a bookkeeper and homemaker.
The seeds of his admiration for political figures who stood up for the less powerful were planted early. “When my parents started talking about buying a house,” Horwitt wrote in “Conversations with Abner Mikva,” “I learned that some neighborhoods were off-limits because of NJA — no Jews allowed. I understood at an early age that, as a defense mechanism, many Jews, including my parents and aunts and uncles, thought of themselves as superior to the goyim. But simultaneously, we often felt like underdogs in American society. That may be why my first hero when I was six or seven years old was Jackie Robinson. I’m not sure that I realized at first that Jackie Robinson was black. But by the way adults talked about him, I sensed that he was a courageous underdog.”
Horwitt graduated from Milwaukee’s Washington High School in 1961. He attended Northwestern University on a baseball scholarship, playing second base and co-captaining the varsity team.
After graduating, Horwitt taught in the Northwestern University communications department and received a Ph.D. from the university in 1970. Early in his career, Horwitt was an assistant professor of communications studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago for four years, before volunteering in 1974 on the campaign to elect Abner Mikva to Congress from the suburbs north of Chicago. After Mikva’s victory, Horwitt moved with his family from Evanston, Ill., to Washington, D.C., to join the congressman’s staff.
Horwitt forged a lifelong bond with Mikva, a leading proponent of gun violence prevention measures in Congress, including a ban on handguns. A notable sidelight of Horwitt’s work on Capitol Hill was organizing the Mikva office’s softball team that beat the National Rifle Association 7-3 in 1978. A softball from that game signed by members of the Mikva Marvels is still displayed in a trophy case in his home office.
Horwitt served as Mikva’s aide for five years until the Senate confirmed Mikva as a federal appeals court judge in 1979 over strong opposition from the NRA. Later, Horwitt helped found the Mikva Challenge, a non-partisan group in honor of Mikva and his wife, Zoe, that teaches the skills needed for civic activism to thousands of youths annually in 10 states.
After his experience on Capitol Hill, Horwitt advised several public interest organizations in Washington, including the National Coalition to Ban Handguns. He also ran a program at People for the American Way called First Vote that registered high school seniors to vote.
During the early 1980s, he began writing his biography of Alinsky. His 1989 book dissected Chicago’s special brand of brutal politics and became the definitive history of Alinsky’s success in melding unions, churches and community groups into a progressive force for better housing and employment practices. His passionate interest in his subject was even displayed on the license plate of his vintage yellow Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 convertible, which read: “Alinsky.”
A skilled public speaker and raconteur, Horwitt co-organized a monthly lunchtime salon at a Chinatown restaurant featuring Washington newsmakers. The salon ran for eight years until the pandemic halted it in 2020.
Horwitt is survived by his wife, Joan, with whom he recently celebrated 51 years of marriage; their sons, Dusty, of Lansing, Mich., and Jeff, of Arlington; daughters-in-law Ann Allegra and Lauren Briggerman; and two granddaughters, Lila and Vivienne.
Contributions may be made to: The Mary Horwitt Piano Scholarship at The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music (wcmusic.org/give/#donate) and The Mikva Challenge Grant Foundation (mikvachallenge.org/donate).