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Why are so many people competing
for the chance to issue you your driver's license?
Because it's the second most powerful
state job. And arguably the most visible

by Jennifer Davis Illustrations by Mike Cramer

From the plush, redecorated confines of his second-floor suite, the current secretary of state has a wide view of his domain. One 14-foot window, nearest the marble fireplace and the baby grand piano, faces the Michael J. Howlett Building, named for a predecessor, and a stone wall where some of his thousands of employees are taking a break. Another window, swathed in yards of navy velvet, offers a view of the Illinois State Library, which he also oversees.

Indeed, the Capitol itself is under the secretary's control. It's his janitors who sweep the marble floors, polish the rotunda railings. And he decides who can hang banners from that railing, who can rally on the steps outside.

Yes, there are lots of trappings of power, beginning with a suite that, despite a 10-foot conference table and big screen TV, still feels roomy. The office is bigger than the governor's, yet the officeholder manages to come across a lot like Norm from Cheers.

In fact, that's the best part about being secretary of state. Everybody knows your name.

The reason? It's blazoned across the top of each and every driver's license. And the secretary gets to go on television to promote traffic safety, literacy, organ donations.

Little wonder then that many consider the post the perfect political stepping stone to governor. And perhaps that's why five candidates are competing for the job in the March primary. The lineup is not only long, it's diverse. On the Republican ticket: two conservative white lawyers from Lake County in the populous Chicago metropolitan region. The Democrats appear to be covering all bets: a woman state senator from downstate Decatur who won her battle against breast cancer but lost a bid for lieutenant governor four years ago; a national hero who took a bullet for former Republican President Ronald Reagan and now fights crime in Orland Park, part of the south suburban area where the contest between Democrats and Republicans is particularly close; and a black Cook County recorder of deeds from Chicago known nationwide for his tumbling team.

All of the candidates say they're running for secretary of state because that's the job they really want. Fair enough. But they'll get asked more often than not whether their aspirations really go no further than issuing driver's licenses, filing forms and securing the state seal. And, after all, George Ryan, who holds the post now and is the Republican gubernatorial candidate, isn't the first secretary of state who's had his eyes on the office halfway down the hall.

Jim Edgar says he wouldn't have been elected governor if he hadn't first been secretary of state. He used that office to broaden his downstate base as a popular Charleston legislator and state government staffer.

"When I became secretary of state, we got involved in the issue of drunk driving and traffic safety, which [former Republican Secretary of State Charles] Carpentier did a little. Drunk driving had been a problem for years, but nobody who had any name recognition or any kind of status in the political community championed it. When we championed it, the media took notice. So it helped the issue, but it also helped me. That's one of the beauties of that office."

For his part, Ryan used the post to win a lower drunken driving threshold. While Edgar tried unsuccessfully to get approval of a lower blood alcohol limit during his two-and-a-half terms as secretary of state, Ryan won a reduction to .08 from . 10 last spring, just in time for the election.

Edgar also rode the amorphous, but feel-good issue of traffic safety to the top; Ryan appears poised to do the same. And safe driving is the message from the current crop of secretary of state candidates.

Republican state Rep. Robert Churchill of Lake Villa wants to crack down on drivers who don't have insurance. Churchill's main opponent Al Salvi, another prominent conservative from Lake County, would get rid of license plates on the front of vehicles.

As for the Democrats, it's not surprising that Orland Park Police

30 / January 1998 Illinois Issues



Chief Tim McCarthy is taking a law enforcement approach to the office. McCarthy, who has 22 years with the Secret Service at the top of his resume, proposes standardizing roadside drunk driving tests and making license plates easier to read.

Cook County Recorder of Deeds Jesse White would streamline and modernize the office. He says he's done that in his current administrative post, "saving taxpayers more than $3 million a year." White, who is probably better known for the tumbling team he created nearly 40 years ago to keep kids off the streets, would pursue the same goal through the libraries the secretary of state oversees. "Let's put books in our students' hands, not guns," he says.

Democratic state Sen. Penny Severns of Decatur would focus on literacy. "Some seek this office for its power," Severns said in announcing her candidacy. "I seek it because of its potential. I wish to solve a profound yet simple problem: At least one in five Illinois citizens cannot read. That must end."

But, in fact, the power to issue literacy grants to community groups throughout the state was another key to Edgar's rise. As the Chicago Tribune reported the month after he narrowly beat Democrat Neil Hartigan for governor in 1990, Edgar used his position as secretary of state "to establish a foothold in minority communities by bestowing literacy grants to black groups with increasing frequency." Edgar adviser Erhard Chorle allowed that black support was crucial in the tight race. "What was supposed to be the cushion," Chorle told the Tribune, "became the bench."

Ryan took his cue from Edgar's success. About 70 percent of some $5.4 million in literacy grants he bestowed last fiscal year have benefited minorities. In all, Ryan's office issued $73.3 million in various awards and grants, the majority for libraries.

In short, the secretary of state's post is the second most powerful state job. And arguably the most visible.

Ironically, Edgar says that at the time of his appointment in 1981 he "didn't really want to be secretary of state."

He did want to be governor, though. "I always thought, 'Gee, being lieutenant governor would be better.' That shows you how foolish I was, because lieutenant governors don't become governor."

Thompson appointed Edgar to finish out the unexpired term of Democrat Alan Dixon. Then, in 1989, Edgar and then-Lt. Gov. George Ryan were both under consideration for the Republican nomination for governor. Though Ryan was second-in-command behind the governor and had served 10 years in the legislature, including a stint as House speaker, it was Edgar's high name recognition and his mini but mighty army of employees/campaign workers that gave him the edge over Ryan.

'I think that helped him considerably," Ryan says now. "His name ID was up. The ability to raise money was there. It made a big difference. So, does it help being in this office compared to being lieutenant governor or some other office? I would guess that's probably true."

Now that Edgar isn't seeking re-election and Ryan has plastered his name across the state during his two terms as secretary of state, it's Ryan's turn to try for governor.

The secretary of state employs nearly 4,000 people at offices throughout the state, including licensing facilities, the most of any statewide elected official except the governor. The lieutenant governor, for instance, employs about three dozen people in Chicago and Springfield. Though court rulings have restricted the power of state officials to hire and fire for partisan reasons, even hundreds of loyal political workers make the secretary of state a political force to be reckoned with. As political analyst James Nowlan explains, "With that many dedicated foot soldiers, you have

Illinois Issues January 1998/ 31

Compared to the wide variety of Democratic candidates, the Republicans look like Mr. Similar and Mr. Same. Bob Churchill and Al Salvi are both conservative Republican lawyers from Lake County, home turf for some plenty wealthy suburbs. Both have legislative experience. And, neither is being endorsed by gubernatorial candidate Secretary of State George Ryan. Ryan, who supported Salvi in his U.S. Senate bid, is remaining neutral through the primary. So is the state Republican Party and the Lake County GOP.

Churchill, however, has the backing of House Minority Leader Lee Daniels and ABATE of Illinois, a 12,000member motorcyclists rights group that supported Salvi in 1996. Salvi, who switched from being an opponent to a supporter of gun control, "has suspect credibility," says Todd Vandermyde, a lobbyist for ABATE, which stands for A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education.

In announcing his candidacy, Robert Churchill said he's running for "the people's office."

"When I first started in politics, I was caught up in all the excitement of running campaigns, developing issues, fighting over bills on the House floor and participating in the democracy in which I was privileged to have a front row seat. As my newness to politics wore off, slowly I began to understand the true meaning of public service. I found that my greatest satisfaction came not from the bills I could pass or the campaigns I could win, but from the people I could help."

Today, this 50-year-old third generation lawyer from Lake Villa wants to help Illinoisans by cracking down on drunk drivers and uninsured motorists. He wants to increase the penalties for those driving with open alcohol and those driving without a license or one that has been suspended or revoked. And he wants "to get all of our libraries on the Internet."

Churchill, who has been a member of the Illinois House for 15 years and a minority leader in that chamber, has the backing of House Republican Minority Leader Lee Daniels. During his legislative career, Churchill has built a reputation as a background player. For instance, he was the key man on the Republican side in Grafting the historic Chicago school reform plan of 1995. Churchill was chairman of the Lake County GOP from 1990 to 1994. He graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in history and political science. His law degree is from the University of Iowa.


a lot of campaign fund-raising potential."

But Nowlan, a political scientist and former state legislator who currently hangs his hat at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs, adds that only will get you so far. "I believe the office is quite valuable for achieving the nomination in the primary, but becomes of little value in helping the nominee to the governorship."

Nowlan also happens to head Ryan's campaign efforts in Stark County. "I think for George Ryan the office [of secretary of state] has achieved as much as it can. For one, it's scared all the other wannabes out of challenging him. But in a general election, where you're appealing to the whole electorate, the role of several hundred dedicated foot soldiers is much less important than it is in the low-turnout primary."

History bears out this conclusion. Only two former secretaries of state Edgar and Louis Emmerson were able to successfully use the office as a springboard to the governor's mansion. Emmerson, also a downstate Republican, served one term as governor during the Great Depression. He refused to seek a second term.

Among those who tried and failed was Democrat Michael J. Howlett. He won his party's nomination but lost in the 1976 general election to Republican James R. Thompson. Democrat Edward Hughes and Republican Charles Carpentier likely would have had their party's gubernatorial support, but both died before the primary. Democrat Edward Barrett lost the 1952 governor's nomination by one vote.

However, many men and so far only men have held the post did use the secretary of state's office as a stepping stone to other offices, including the Illinois Supreme Court and Congress. Stephen A. Douglas, for instance, was secretary of state for just under three months when he resigned to join the state's highest court. He later served in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate before unsuccessfully running for president.

And Alan Dixon, a Democrat from Belleville, used his popularity as secretary of state when he was elected in 1978 he was the first political candi

32 / January 1998 Illinois Issues

He practices law in the Grayslake firm his grandfather started.

He, his wife Sandra and their three daughters live in Lake Villa.

Former state Rep. Al Salvi, the 1996 Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, hopes to be the 1998 GOP pick for secretary of state. A 37-year-old wealthy conservative lawyer from Lake County, Salvi is best known for his stunning upset of Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra in the primary two years ago. Because of that, he is far better known than his Republican rival.

He wants to design a specialty license plate to benefit cash-strapped schools. "It's a simple idea, but those are the ones that work."

And he believes Illinois could save a lot of money by eliminating the front license plate on vehicles. "Twenty other states have done so with great success. The police officers in those states support it. Also, then we could issue new license plates without raising taxes."

Other plans: a new temporary paper license plate to replace the temporary sticker now used, and a three-tiered DUI penalty system. "I don't think someone at .08 should be treated the same as someone at .20."

Finally, Salvi would like to use the state's libraries for after-school tutoring programs. "My wife is on the board of the Midtown Education Foundation. They tutor inner-city kids after school and on weekends. Over 90 percent of them graduate high school and many have gone on to Ivy League schools. I would like to make available our libraries for more programs like that."


Salvi started his political career young. In 1986, at age 25, the youngest allowed by the Constitution, Salvi ran for Congress, hoping to represent southeastern Illinois. He won the primary but lost the general election to Democrat incumbent Terry Bruce. Six years later, Salvi won a seat in the General Assembly. During his nearly four years in the House, he sponsored privatization of prisons. But he says he's most proud of his bill to strip the driver's license from any parent not paying child support. That law took effect July 1996. He's proud of another law that banned race discrimination in the adoption process.

Salvi graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in government and the University of Illinois with a law degree. He and his wife Kathleen are expecting their sixth child. They live in Mundelein.

date to carry all 102 Illinois counties to propel him to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1980 to 1992.

From the beginning, the secretary of state's office has been a political plum, even when the governor appointed that official and he was little more than a personal secretary to the chief executive.

Elias Kent Kane was Illinois' first secretary of state, appointed under the 1818 Illinois Constitution, which he helped write. Historians say Kane, a Yale graduate, had more power than the governor, Democrat Shadrach Bond, who had little education. It's said Kane wrote Bond's message to the first General Assembly along with other papers. "He dominated Bond's administration," according to Keepers of the Seal, A History of Illinois Secretaries of State. Kane later went on to the U.S. Senate.

Secretary of state was made an elective post in the 1848 Constitution. And over the years the General Assembly has added to the secretary's duties. In the 1840s, he was both the state sealer of weights and measures and the ex-officio superintendent of common schools. Both duties were later transferred. With the 1870 Constitution, the secretary of state became the custodian of the state seal. In 1891, the office began to administer the anti-trust act and to register trademarks. Even as early as 1892, Secretary of State Isaac Pearson summed up his office by saying, "The nature of this service is entirely new and without precedent in this state."

Indeed, the job of secretary of state in Illinois is like no other such post in the country. It is the largest in size and

Before the deadline for declaring candidacies, the Reform Party filed competing slates for statewide offices, including secretary of state. The Reform Party is an Illinois offshoot of Ross Perot's organization.

Illinois Issues January l998 / 33

The Democrats have their demographics covered in this race.

A black from Chicago with a mile-long resume, Cook County Recorder of Deeds Jesse White may have an edge since that county accounts for almost two-thirds of the state's Democratic votes. The Cook County Democratic Party is not endorsing anyone, but Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine is backing White.

There's also a national hero, a Democrat who took a bullet to save a Republican president. With that background, Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy could appeal to both parties, a potential advantage because the parties are struggling for dominance in McCarthy's south suburban turf-

State Sen. Penny Severns, meanwhile, is a downstater from blue collar Decatur who could benefit from the support from organized labor. She's also popular with fiscal conservatives. Severns has a long list of legislative accomplishments, and has waged a successful fight against breast cancer. She's run for statewide office before so she's well-known.

Indeed, it seems the only thing these candidates have in common is the lack of formal support from their party's central committee. The state party has chosen not to endorse anyone in this race. At one party meeting, both White and Severns were called into an executive session to which McCarthy wasn't invited. Still, he says that can be viewed two ways.

"I was told they were asked to run for different offices. I wasn't," he says.

Tim McCarthy says he won't capitalize on his national hero status, but he admits it's usually one of the first things to come up. "We were campaigning downstate, and it was brought up in the 20 different cities we visited," says McCarthy, referring to the bullet he took during a 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. "I don't mind. I'm proud of what I did."

The 48-year-old Orland Park police chief would focus on the secretary of state's law enforcement responsibilities. "We need to redesign the driver's license. It's not law enforcement friendly. The hologram sits over the date of birth and that's especially a problem at night."

He would also standardize field sobriety tests, and says refusal to take one "should result in a summary suspension."

McCarthy graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1972 with a degree in finance. He lives in Orland Park with his wife Carol. They have three children.

Penny Severns, a state senator from Decatur, admits her two Democratic opponents are strong candidates, but she's the only one with experience in a statewide race. "That gives me the edge," she said during her campaign kickoff November 18.

Two weeks later, Severns was undergoing surgery to remove a



scope. "The secretary of state is, truly, the state's secretary," says Dave Urbanek, Ryan's press secretary. "We handle all the minutia that doesn't fall under the governor's office."

And, though more politicians have failed than succeeded at making the switch from secretary to governor, the office's potential remains undiminished. For one thing, no other constitutional office is as well-known. If you don't see George H. Ryan's name in your wallet or on your television screen, you might spot it on a sign at a highway toll booth, reminding you about the lower drunken driving threshold, or at the satellite offices dotting Illinois' landscape from Chicago to Albion, population 2,100.

"This is the only office interacting with people on a daily basis statewide," says Charles Wheeler III, a former Statehouse reporter who now

34 / January 1998 Illinois Issues

cancerous tumor from her skull. Less than a week after that, Severns was saying she felt good and planned "to return to a full schedule as soon as possible."

In 1994, Severns campaigned unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor while battling breast cancer. A congressional bid in 1980 also failed, but three years later she was elected to the Decatur city council by the largest number of votes in Decatur history. While there, Severns was instrumental in starting Macon County's 911 telephone emergency response system. Severns won her state Senate seat six years later, ousting a 10-year Republican incumbent who was also a former Decatur mayor. During her now decade-long career in the Senate, Severns has become known for fighting government waste in spending. For years, Severns has introduced legislation to set state purchasing rules. An agreement, covering the majority of state contracts, was finally reached this fall.

Last spring Severns sponsored a measure designed to help the state keep better track of parents who fail to pay child support. The measure to require employers to report all new hires to the Illinois Department of Employment Security is now law.

Now this 45-year-old Decatur native wants to be secretary of state and "eradicate illiteracy." She notes that one in five Illinoisans cannot read and one in eight workers nationwide reads below the sixth-grade level. Illinois ranks 34th nationwide in literacy. But while literacy is the cornerstone of her campaign, Severns also has plans to reduce the high school dropout rate: Dropouts without a medical or compelling hardship will lose their driver's license until they're 18. "It worked in West Virginia, which witnessed a 33 percent reduction in dropout rates."

Additionally, Severns pledged to be the first constitutional officer to implement reforms in state purchasing. During November's veto session, the legislature passed stricter rules for the Department of Transportation, Central Management Services, the Capital Development Board and all state universities.

Severns graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1974 with a degree in political science.


As Cook County recorder of deeds for the past five years, Jesse White has overseen more employees than any of his opponents. With 270 workers and a $13 million budget, White says he has a better idea than any of the candidates what the secretary of state's office, with its 3,600 full-time employees and $281 million budget, entails. He also "knows the ways of Springfield," having spent 16 years there as a Chicago lawmaker. During his tenure in the House, White passed legislation making it easier for restaurants and companies to donate surplus food to soup kitchens and food banks. He notes that similar federal legislation was signed this year. "So I was just about 15 years ahead of my time," he says.

Still, most people likely know him best for his work outside politics. White, 62, is head coach of the Jesse White Tumbling Team, an internationally known acrobatic troupe he founded in 1959 to help kids stay away from gangs and drugs.

It's all this experience combined with his ideas, he says, that make him the best candidate for secretary of state.

As the state's librarian, White would develop mentoring programs

for students. "I want our libraries to become a place where people meet and discuss the problems of the day."

He also wants to train employees to make the state's driver's license facilities become more user-friendly. And he has plans to do something about the temporary license plate stickers in car windows. "1 know gang members drive around with the same one for two or three years. It's a real problem."

White, who graduated from Alabama State College in 1957 with a degree in physical education, lives on the North Side of Chicago. He has two adult children. 

directs the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "In a sense, you're a household word."

But Churchill, Salvi, McCarthy, Severns and White will tell you they're itching for the chance to keep track of more than 7.6 million drivers and 9.2

million vehicles as well as nearly 340,000 corporations and almost 100,000 people and companies registered to sell securities, and the state's network of libraries.

"It's a fairly complicated administerial office," says Nowlan. "So, if someone really wants to manage people, it's a good office. But, then again, if that's what you want to do, then why not go into private practice and make some real money?"

Editor's Note: This candidate lineup was correct at press time. But all candidate filings are subject to challenge with the State Board of Elections.

Illinois Issues January 1998 / 35

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