Stateline Story

Illinois Governors Race May Turn On Name Issue

  • September 20, 2002
  • By Dave McKinney

Most politicians crave name recognition. But in Illinois, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Jim Ryan is finding his surname a liability in his race with Democrat Rod Blagojevich to succeed incumbent Republican Gov. George Ryan.

The Ryan name used to be so charmed in Illinois politics. For five straight elections spanning 1982 to 1998, voters in the Land of Lincoln sent a Republican named Ryan to Springfield to serve in one of state government's marquee posts.

In every statewide vote during that period, Republican George Ryan emerged a winner, first as the state's two-term lieutenant governor, then as a two-term secretary of state and, finally for the last four years, as governor. But another Republican named Ryan -- Attorney General Jim Ryan -- has found his bid to succeed the retiring George Ryan isn't going so well. That's because the last name he shares with the lame-duck governor is anything but gilded.

Gov. Ryan, who leaves office in January, may have drawn international acclaim for his moratorium on executions. But at home, he is so damaged politically, the fallout could cause his party to lose every major prize in state government this fall.

His troubles date back to his days in the secretary of state office, when his workers traded commercial driver's licenses for bribes, then deposited some of that money into his campaign fund. George Ryan has denied criminal wrongdoing, but a four-year federal corruption probe has killed his political career and resulted in federal indictments against key aides and his campaign fund. Only one in five Illinois voters is satisfied with his job performance, a historic low for an Illinois governor.

Because of those problems, Democrats believe they can win the governor's office for the first time in 30 years, occupy every other major statewide office and control both legislative chambers. The state Supreme Court is already solidly in Democratic hands. The party hasn't faced similar prospects since before World War II.

Most polls now find Jim Ryan trailing his Democratic rival, U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich, by from 15 to 22 percentage points. Ryan, who is in his second term as the state's top law enforcement officer and is not related to George Ryan, has tried to bridge the gap by distancing himself from the unpopular governor.

Jim Ryan has gone so far as to demand that the incumbent resign unless he explains what he knew about the licenses-for-bribes scandal that has yielded close to 50 convictions. Gov. Ryan, who has not been charged, dismissed the demand as a campaign stunt.

"Let's be honest," said the attorney general, a former state's attorney in DuPage County near Chicago, "voters do want a change, and voters rightly are upset about this culture of sleaze in our state. I'm upset as a prosecutor. We have to change that, and I intend to change that. Politics in this state needs a bath, and if I'm elected governor, it'll get one."

Despite the attorney general's efforts to establish his own identity, many Illinoisans dont know the difference between the two Ryans. Jim Ryan's own polling has shown that 17 percent of voters mistake him for the scandal-plagued Republican governor, and it' s a situation Democrats seem all too eager to exploit.

"Mr. Ryan is trying to suggest he's the agent for change. Well, it ain't change if you replace one Ryan with another Ryan," Blagojevich said during a recent campaign rally at the Illinois State Fair, parroting a line that surfaces at almost every stop the Chicago congressman makes.

There is a certain cocky edge to Blagojevich, who has served in Congress since 1997 after a brief stint in the Illinois House. Reflective of the frame of mind most Illinois Democrats are in, Blagovich does little to hide his swagger.

"It's been 30 years since we elected a governor," he told a crowd of Democratic supporters on the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. "Thirty years ago, Elvis was alive and doing Vegas. It's been 30 years of Heartbreak Hotel' for the Democrats. But when we win in November, the Republicans will be "All Shook Up."

Beyond Gov. Ryan's problems, Republicans have had to contend with the embarrassing departure of the party's state chairman, House Minority Leader Lee Daniels (R-Elmhurst), amid revelations that his office may have illegally deployed his publicly-funded staff for political campaigning in past legislative elections. Daniels, who has denied wrongdoing, resigned his top party post this summer after Jim Ryan turned over to federal investigators allegations his office received against Daniels.

"We're a national laughingstock," said Blagojevich's running mate, Patrick Quinn, a Democrat seeking to become lieutenant governor. "Are you proud of your Illinois government today with scandal after scandal?"

Jim Ryan's position in the polls and the continuing federal probe into George Ryan's secretary of state tenure have caused fund-raising problems for the attorney general, whose campaign treasury is a third of Blagojevich's. That, in turn, has kept Jim Ryan off the airwaves and unable to remind voters about how he has overcome adversity. Ryan, who has had cancer, lost his 12-year-old daughter to a brain tumor and nearly lost his wife to heart problems during the past four years.

The lack of money hasn't kept Jim Ryan from going after Blagojevich in other ways. He has tried portraying Blagojevich as a puppet of his father-in-law, powerful Democratic Chicago alderman Richard Mell. And, Ryan has begun a new strategy reminding voters that this fall's elections could be an all-or-nothing proposition in which total control of the state could go to Democrats. "This is about some balance in government, some checks and balances,"Ryan said, noting how every Democrat but one on the party's statewide ticket comes from Chicago. "Let's face it, there is more to this state than just Chicago."

To try slowing down the Democratic momentum, Republicans have tried dishing out dirt against House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), who is the Democratic state party chairman and father of the Democratic nominee for attorney general, state Sen. Lisa Madigan (D-Chicago), whom polls have placed ahead of her GOP opponent, Joseph Birkett.

Republicans have condemned the speaker for doling out thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded bonuses to his legislative staff before they went on leave to work on his daughter's statewide campaign. Further criticism has been lodged against the speaker's awarding of a $300,000 state grant, in lean economic times, to help a political pal with an interest in show horses upgrade equestrian facilities at the Illinois State Fair.

"It's pretty obvious that the problems that have occurred in the secretary of state's office are going to cause a political problem for the Republican Party. They know that. Thats why they're trying to take some of their droppings and kick them over on me," said the speaker, who has fervently predicted that Democrats will engineer a "clean sweep" on Nov. 5.

If Republicans are to stop that, their only hope is joining in the attacks against George Ryan during his closing days. Borrowing on Jim Ryan's themes, GOP secretary of state candidate Kris O'Rourke Cohn has taken to handing out bars of soap during her campaign stops, promising to clean up the secretary of state office that now is at the root of all the Republican Party's problems.

Convinced his name shouldn't be mud in Illinois, George Ryan bristles at such strategy, accusing her and Jim Ryan of "scandal-mongoring" when their focus should be elsewhere. "They ought to talk about 30 years of solid Republican leadership in this state that has put us in the shape we're in," the governor said.

But for now, the shape Illinois is in is something other Illinois Republicans named Ryan see no need to brag about.