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Jesse White Off Illinois Ballot for First Time in 24 Years

The 88-year-old Democrat is retiring from his long-standing role as secretary of state, giving Illinois voters fresh choices to lead the statewide operation with more than 4,000 employees.

(TNS) — For the first time in 24 years, Illinois voters will go to the polls in November without having Jesse White as a choice for secretary of state.

The candidates seeking to take over from the retiring White are both lavish in praise of him — the 88-year-old Democrat has been one of the state’s most popular politicians and was never seriously challenged during his long tenure — while also promising to modernize and streamline the often time-consuming process of license renewals and other business with the office.

Republican Dan Brady, 61, of Bloomington, is a veteran state legislator who touts his record of bipartisanship and promises to expand staffing to reduce wait times at secretary of state facilities.

Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, 46, is attempting a political comeback after losing a 2010 U.S. Senate race following a single term as state treasurer. He says that if elected he will lean heavily on technology to make the office more consumer-friendly.

The winner will head a sprawling statewide operation with over 4,000 employees that arguably sees the most interaction with the public of any state agency. It oversees driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, keeps track of business registrations, maintains an organ and tissue donation registry and operates public libraries, among other services.

Despite that, voters often know little about the office’s operations, said Christopher Mooney, a political scientist from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It’s a race that nobody knows much about. It’s an office that nobody knows much about,” Mooney said. “‘So when you talk about the campaign they’re running, the strategy and all that, to a large extent that is completely meaningless in this race because it’s not about the campaign. It’s about party identification.”

Giannoulias, seen as a political up-and-comer before stepping away from electoral politics after losing a race to fill the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama, handily won the Democratic primary over Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, who was backed by top state Democrats including White and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The general election campaign has seen little of the vitriol of the primary, when Giannoulias and Valencia accused each other of ethical shortcomings.

Giannoulias’ line of attack focused on the lobbying activities of Valencia’s husband. Among his proposed reforms for the secretary of state’s office, which oversees lobbying in Illinois, are banning spouses from lobbying their partners’ offices, blocking politicians from receiving money from people who work for them and curtailing unregistered lobbying.

“We need to make sure there’s as much transparency as possible,” he said.

As in the primary, Giannoulias figures to have significantly more campaign cash than his opponent. Records show about $775,000 in his campaign fund at the end of June, according to the latest quarterly spending reports, and he’s since secured several donations including a $1 million check from Pritzker.

Brady had only about $5,800 in his campaign account at the end of June, and has tried to spin the cash difference to his advantage. He was able to easily defeat his GOP primary opponent, former U.S. Attorney John Milhiser, even though Milhiser was on a slate funded by billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin.

“What the voters are looking for is not who has the most money in the bank but who has the best ability and who has the best ideas to streamline an office that needs to be brought into the 21st century,” Brady said last month during a Zoom-based forum sponsored by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors.

Giannoulias says his experience as Illinois treasurer and working with technology companies as a private-sector investor make him best suited to update the secretary of state’s office, which he says he views “as a customer service, retail operation.”

His proposed technology reforms include electronic vehicle titles, digital Real IDs and a “skip the line” program for driver’s license services that he said will do more to streamline the process for residents than the online scheduling that’s now available. The changes would speed up driver services and free workers to take more direct care of senior and disabled customers, Giannoulias said.

“None of the technology that we’ve talked about during this campaign requires any new invention. It already exists,” Giannoulias told the Tribune Editorial Board.

Such nuts-and-bolts issues aren’t sure to grab the attention of voters, and Giannoulias’ TV ads have promoted his support for abortion rights and voting rights, two issues central to the national Democratic platform that the secretary of state’s office has limited or no control over.

But Giannoulias has found ways to make a connection to his campaign. He says he would work with state legislators to prevent automatic license plate reader footage from being used by anti-abortion states to prosecute women seeking abortion in Illinois.

He also says he will seek to create “back end” voter registration procedures so that eligible residents would be automatically registered to vote when they apply for or renew state IDs or driver’s licenses. Individuals would be able to opt out after already being registered.

He said he wants to make those changes because, “We don’t take voting seriously enough.”

He also wants to use the office to “push back” on book bans at libraries and provide ex-offenders being released from prisons with identification cards so they can more easily reenter society.

Giannoulias was 30 when he was elected as the nation’s youngest state treasurer in 2006. His candidacy was backed by then- U.S. Sen. Obama, with whom Giannoulias became friends years earlier while playing pickup basketball.

The failure during the Great Recession of Broadway Bank, his family’s North Side financial institution, and his role as a senior loan officer in the 2000s when the bank issued loans to crime figures, has hung over his political career. Then U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk used it against him during the race for Obama’s Senate seat in 2010, winning the seat while Giannoulias went on to complete his term as state treasurer.

Detractors also argue Giannoulias made missteps while treasurer in dealing with the state’s Bright Start college savings program.

The program lost about $150 million after the fund manager used by Giannoulias, OppenheimerFunds Inc., invested in volatile securities tied to the unstable housing market. He was able to recover about $77 million from OppenheimerFunds for more than 65,000 Bright Start investors and, in defending his approach to the Tribune, said that financial analysts gave his administration generally high marks for how it ran Bright Start.

Since leaving the state treasurer’s office in 2011, Giannoulias has held positions on nonprofit and public agency boards. He headed the Illinois Community College Board, overseeing policies of the state’s two-year colleges from 2011 to 2015, and sat on the Chicago Public Library Board from 2018 until last year with some of the city’s civic elite.

Giannoulias also taught a political science course at Northwestern University, invested in a handful of restaurants and worked for about seven years as a wealth manager in the Chicago office of Bank of New York Mellon.

Giannoulias has declined to disclose the identities of his BNY Mellon clients, citing privacy provisions. He has only said his clients were “individuals and families” and that “none of my clients were elected officials.”

His campaign said Giannoulias never had any interaction “with any government entities or public pension funds at any time during his tenure at BNY.”

Brady is trying to become the first Republican secretary of state since White took over from George Ryan, who went on to become governor before going to prison for corruption that occurred during his time as secretary of state.

A funeral director and part-owner of a funeral home in Bloomington, Brady has been state representative since 2001 and was the McLean County coroner from 1992 to 2000.

In announcing his endorsement of Brady last month, former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar — who preceded Ryan as secretary of state — said he believes that Brady has the best chance of any GOP candidate to win a race for statewide office in November.

“He wasn’t an extreme candidate (in the primary). He was viewed more in the middle and he did very well in that primary,” Edgar said. “That I think will pay dividends when he goes in the general election.”

Brady has said the secretary of state “is an office I’ve aspired to,” and that he’s worked with White as a state legislator. He says his experience as a coroner and as a funeral director is a plus given the secretary of state’s role in promoting organ donation.

As a legislator, Brady developed a reputation for collaborating with colleagues across the aisle. He worked with a Democratic lawmaker and White on the state’s “first-person consent law,” which allows organ donors 18 and older to make their own decisions to donate their organs upon their deaths, preventing their families from overruling their wishes.

Brady also helped push for a 2018 law that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to join the registry, though if any of them were to die their parents would have the option of deciding whether their organs get harvested.

Brady said he’d reduce wait times at secretary of state’s facilities through additional staffing, arguing the offices haven’t been fully staffed for some time. He also proposes cross-training employees at driver’s service facilities so they can handle tasks beyond what they’re normally assigned.

Brady also wants to make driver’s license renewals more widely available through remote registration, and more mobile driver’s services at senior centers.

He says he’d work with the General Assembly to try to reduce various licensing fees and transition the officeto an electronic title and lien system.

Among his proposals is a $50 reduction on all license plate fees for one year to address high inflation, which would have to be approved by the General Assembly.

Brady pegged the loss in revenue from the temporary fee reduction to the state’s Road Fund and capital construction account at $435 million. Giannoulias criticized the plan as fiscally irresponsible, saying the cost would be more like $550 million.

A spokesman for White, a Democrat who is backing Giannoulias, said the move would lead to a $500 million decrease in revenue for the road and construction funds.

The secretary of state is Illinois’ official librarian, and Brady has also talked about developing a better system for broadband internet connectivity in libraries throughout the state, especially those in rural areas.

In terms of social issues of the day, Brady has voted against pro-abortion rights measures in the legislature such as the 2019 Reproductive Health Act — enshrining abortion as a human right — and the repeal of a requirement for abortion providers to notify the parents of minors seeking the procedure. His candidacy was endorsed by the Illinois Federation for Right to Life.

But he hasn’t focused on social issues like Giannoulias, saying that on the campaign trail, voters don’t seem to care about those issues when it comes to who would be able to provide the best services as secretary of state.

“My campaign is driven by interactions with voters,” Brady said at the Zoom-based forum last month. “To date, I haven’t been asked about positions in the secretary of state’s office on social issues.”

Brady’s willingness to work with Democrats included his backing in 2007 of legislation sponsored by then-Democratic state Rep. Eddie Acevedo, to give special driving certificates to immigrants living here illegally.

The proposal ultimately failed, but in 2013 Brady was one of several Republicans who joined Democrats to pass a measure, signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn, to grant temporary visitor driver’s licenses to immigrants without documentation.

Last year, Brady was the chief sponsor of a bill later signed into law by Pritzker that allows motorists over 55 to complete an e-learning course on defensive driving to be eligible for rate reductions for auto insurance.

When asked about unsupported claims by former President Donald Trump and other Republicans that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, Brady said he doesn’t know that to be the case but considers Democrat Joe Biden to be the duly elected president.

But Brady said he thinks the secretary of state’s office can play a role in improving election security. He’s said driver’s license photos could be used to verify the identities of voters, rather than just relying on signatures. Several states, including Indiana and Wisconsin, require photo IDs to vote.

According to Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections, only when election judges are struggling to verify a would-be voter’s identity would they need to see a photo ID. Any move to make that a requirement would need to go through the General Assembly, he said.

In his travels across Illinois, Brady said he’s learned that voters want the “party of efficiency” to run the secretary of state’s office, whether that leader is a Republican or Democrat.

“They want to cut those wait lines, they want more services that are remote for them, they want to have a more pleasant experience in dealing with the secretary of state’s office,” Brady said in September in an interview in Springfield. “I’ve spoken to all that.”

Libertarian Party candidate Jon Stewart, of Deerfield, is also on the ballot.

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