Illinois’ secretary of state campaign is wide open for the first time in 24 years. Here’s a look at the candidates and key questions
Forgive Illinois voters if they’ve forgotten what a contested election for secretary of state looks like. It’s been a while.
Democrat Jesse White won a record six terms, trouncing Republican sacrificial lambs in every re-election bid. White, who turns 88 in June, is retiring, and this year’s secretary of state race is an open-seat contest for the first time since 1998.
On the Democratic side, the question is whether having the most money, labor endorsements and presumably volunteer manpower will be enough to win. So far, former state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has all three as he takes on Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia and 17th Ward Ald. David Moore. The wild cards are that it’s likely to be a low-turnout election and the race remains wide open with more than four months before the June 28 primary.
On the Republican side, it’s a question of whether running on a slate backed by billionaire Ken Griffin is enough to overcome the experience of a veteran lawmaker who piled up endorsements from his colleagues. Former U.S. Attorney John Milhiser of Springfield, backed by Ken Griffin, jumped in after state Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington looked to be unopposed.
The secretary of state’s office is a desirable one. From the 1970s to the 1990s, four secretaries of state used the office as a springboard to run for governor or the U.S. Senate, with three of them successful. The office has nearly 4,000 employees, meaning the politician in charge gets to hire a lot of people and pile up some favors.
Candidates for governor and attorney general get asked about their positions on divisive issues such as abortion rights, gun control and criminal justice, but that’s less important for a job where the major duties are making sure people can get driver’s licenses, vehicle stickers and business registrations.
That means secretary of state campaigns tend to be more focused on the candidates’ political and personal background, job experience and ideas for the office. Once in, about the only way to get in trouble is to try to cash in on the office’s contracts, employees and customers, which happened during the 1990s when then-Secretary of State George Ryan found himself eventually going to federal prison in the licenses-for-bribes scandal (but not before serving a term as governor).
Early polling shows that Undecided is lapping the Democratic field, as two of three voters haven’t made up their minds.
One factor above all others could sway the result.
“There is only one question in the Democratic primary: Who is Jesse White for?” said one longtime political operative.
So far, White is mum. At the Illinois State Fair in August, he and Gov. J.B. Pritzker each indicated they were waiting to see who else might run. White thought he might have an answer on an endorsement by January. Now, in mid-February, he still hasn’t picked a favorite.
“He likes the candidates that are in the race. He’s still trying to make a decision because everybody is good,” White spokesman Dave Druker told the Center for Illinois Politics.
The popular secretary of state’s backing would be a big boost for any of the three candidates, but especially Valencia, who is a member of White’s 27th Ward Democratic organization. The Illinois AFL-CIO held a vote to select a candidate for their endorsement. The vote failed to give any candidate the required majority, thus leaving them no choice but to hold off supporting any candidate for now.
The secretary of state contest is the most high-profile one on the Democratic side, with U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Pritzker expected to be unopposed in the primary. That could mean Democratic turnout will be low, although a potential City Council ward map referendum might see aldermen try hard to get voters out to the polls.
For Giannoulias, the campaign is an attempt at a political comeback. Barack Obama’s onetime basketball buddy was a rising star when he was elected treasurer in 2006, only to see his ascent stalled when he lost a brutal 2010 U.S. Senate race to Republican Mark Kirk.
Giannoulias was under fire for criticism that he was too slow to act when one of the funds in the Bright Start college investment program lost money during the 2008 housing market collapse, costing Illinois parents tens of millions of dollars.
Giannoulias also faced questions about his family’s bank loaning two Chicago crime figures $20 million when he was a senior loan officer.
Since the Senate defeat, Giannoulias served as chair of the Illinois Community College Board, joined a New York investment bank and endorsed Republican Tom Cross over fellow Democrat Mike Frerichs in the 2014 treasurer’s race.
Giannoulias started out with a decent chunk of campaign money left over from 2010 and has been collecting money from labor unions that potentially will provide volunteers to get out the primary vote.
“Alexi has outraised the rest of the primary field by a 5-to-1 margin, and he is the only candidate who has built a broad-based, grassroots organization that is crucial for turning out the vote,” campaign spokeswoman Hanah Jubeh said.
Valencia’s lane is an appeal to Latino, women and millennials. She’s banking on her story connecting with voters.
“Anna understands first-hand the challenges many Illinois families face. She grew up in a working-class family and a union household. Anna will be a voice for people who don’t often see themselves in state leaders, like moms, working families, downstaters and people of color,” campaign manager Cheryl Bruce said.
Laura Ricketts, part of the family that owns the Cubs, is raising money for Valencia. It’s welcome assistance --- Valencia had less than $900,000 to start the year while Giannoulias had $4 million.
One of the state’s highest-profile Latino leaders, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, is backing Giannoulias over Valencia. That one’s easy to read: Garcia lost to then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the 2015 mayor’s race, and Emanuel appointed Valencia clerk.
Valencia is from Granite City in the Metro East area, and she’s got the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield, who could help by calling downstate Democratic county chairs and asking them to back her.
As clerk, Valencia put together a plan to reform the city’s fines and fees and established a government-issued ID cards to help Chicagoans get access to city benefits.
Moore, the 17th Ward alderman, is probably best known for last year’s successful push to rename Lake Shore Drive for Chicago’s founder Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. The accountant and two-term alderman represents Chicago Lawn, Auburn Gresham, Marquette Park and West Englewood on the City Council.
Moore hasn’t gotten big name endorsements and had less than $100,000 in campaign money to start the year. Still, he’s the lone Black candidate, and that’s an advantage in a Democratic primary.
“We do know Black votes in Cook County can win a race,” campaign spokeswoman Delmarie Cobb said. “It’s going to be very important. That’s his base.”
Moore has pushed digital license plates as a way to reduce lines at driver’s license offices through easy renewals. The plates could carry ads, bringing in money, and help in the fight against carjacking by alerting police that a car is stolen.
So far, Valencia has talked about expanding voting access --- the secretary of state’s office is not in charge of elections in Illinois but it’s an issue that could play well among Democrats --- and creating a program to boost civic engagement among young people. She would try to shorten the lines by modernizing the office but pledges to “work with union leaders” when she does so.
Giannoulias, too, has been talking about voting access, as well as protecting against financial fraud. He’s proposed letting people pay an extra $10 to be able to choose their driver’s license photo and creating an online reservation system so people can avoid long lines.
Milhiser is part of the slate of candidates put together by a top operative for former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. A former Sangamon County state’s attorney and U.S. attorney for central Illinois, Milhiser launched his secretary of state bid Jan. 4. He hasn’t reported any campaign contributions, but could receive a windfall from Griffin and his wealthy allies. Milhiser seems to have been recruited to provide a general election contrast to Giannoulias and his decade-old political baggage should he advance to the general election.
Brady boasts endorsements from several dozen Republican state lawmakers, including House Republican Leader Jim Durkin. Brady has raised about $250,000, which won’t be enough to air many TV ads. He’s running on his experience and banking on GOP voters not buying into the concept of Griffin’s slate, or at least not when it comes to the secretary of state contest.
“Republican primary voters are more interested in choosing their own candidate and not someone suggesting they should be choosing it from them,” Brady said.
A House veteran of more than 20 years, Brady passed a law making it easier for senior citizens to get driver’s insurance discounts by taking online accident prevention courses. He also helped pass a law lowering the age to be an organ donor from 18 to 16, with parents able to opt out for their children.
Brady said he’d work on getting driver services offices staffed and allow people to download vehicle stickers to cut down on lines. He’d allow people to pick up their license plates instead of waiting for them to be mailed. He would put driver services offices at community colleges. And he said he’d explore partnerships to allow high school students who have just completed driver’s education and behind the wheel training to skip the state test to get a license.
Milhiser’s campaign website and social media don’t list many specifics and a campaign spokesman didn’t provide any when asked last week. Milhiser is touting that he’s opposed to public corruption.
Lives in: Chicago
Political experience: Illinois treasurer (2007-2011); lost U.S. Senate bid (2010)
Fundraising: Had $4 million to start the year after raising $658,000 and spending $82,000 in the last three months of 2021.
Endorsements: U.S. Reps. Chuy Garcia, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Bobby Rush and Jan Schakowsky. Ten state senators and 15 state representatives. Eighteen Chicago aldermen, including Pat Dowell, who dropped out of SOS race to run for Congress. Cook County Democratic Party and 19th, 38th, 39th and 41st Ward organizations, Proviso Township Democrats. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Clerk Karen Yarbrough and Circuit Clerk Iris Martinez. SEIU Local 1, Teamsters, Illinois Federation of Teachers and Laborers. Campaign’s full list is here.
Strengths: Fundraising advantage, strong labor endorsements and some residual statewide name recognition.
Weaknesses: Baggage from Bright Start mess and family bank loan scandal.
Lives in: Chicago
Political experience: Chicago city clerk (2016-present)
Fundraising: Had $883,000 to start the year after raising $332,000 and spending $156,000 in the last three months of 2021.
Endorsements: U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood. Four state senators, 13 state representatives and eight Chicago aldermen. Chicago Firefighters Local 2, Associated Firefighters of Illinois, UNITE HERE Local 1, Illinois Nurses Association. Campaign’s full list is here.
Strengths: Has run an administrative office before. Only Latina and woman candidate in the contest.
Weaknesses: Needs to raise more money for a TV ad push. Not well known outside the city.
Lives in: Chicago
Political experience: Chicago 17th Ward alderman (2015-present)
Fundraising: Had $82,000 to start the year after raising $45,000 and spending $61,000 in the last three months of 2021.
Endorsements: Doesn’t have a list on his campaign site.
Strengths: The lone Black candidate in a primary election where support from Black voters is key. Can point to business background.
Weaknesses: Fundraising. Not much citywide name recognition, let alone statewide.
Lives in: Bloomington
Political experience: McLean County coroner (1992-2000); state representative (2001-present)
Fundraising: Had $251,000 to start the year after raising $100,000 and spending $39,000 in the last three months of 2021.
Endorsements: U.S. Reps. Darin LaHood, Mike Bost and Rodney Davis. House GOP Leader Jim Durkin. Eleven state senators and 32 state representatives. Campaign’s full list is here.
Strengths: Can point to two decades of experience as lawmaker. Has backing of many of his colleagues.
Weaknesses: No money to launch a TV ad campaign. Could be vastly outspent by the Griffin-funded slate.
Lives in: Springfield
Political experience: U.S. attorney, Illinois Central District (2018-2021); Sangamon County state’s attorney (2012-2018)
Fundraising: Filed his campaign fund creation paperwork on Jan. 4 and has not reported any contributions yet.
Endorsements: Doesn’t have a list on his campaign site.
Strengths: Could get major financial backing from billionaire Ken Griffin. Running as part of a slate put together by operative for ex-Gov. Bruce Rauner. Former prosecutor can beat the drum on political corruption.
Weaknesses: Lacks statewide name recognition. Needs to quickly ramp up his campaign.
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