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Kirk Dillard reloads, laments what might have been

ElectionsLaws and LegislationKirk DillardIllinois Governor

As Kirk Dillard travels the state campaigning for the Republican governor nomination, he laments the razor-thin defeat in his last primary election fight, offering audiences the message of a politician who could have been a contender if only he'd reached the main event.

"But for 193 votes," he says, a reference to his 0.02-percentage-point loss to fellow state Sen. Bill Brady four years ago. "But for 193 votes."

Dillard goes on to present an alternative-reality version of Illinois if he had been the one to take on and defeat Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn: Same-sex couples would not be allowed to wed. The death penalty would still be an option for prosecutors. The income tax would not have been raised. And a new electoral map would not have put control of the state Capitol and congressional delegation so firmly in Democratic hands.

The phrase, Dillard says, is a reinforcement tool for precinct workers and supporters. "It lets them know that every vote does count — and it truly does," he said in a recent interview. "I'm living proof that every vote counts."

The frequency of his vote-counting refrain also underscores the depth of the 2010 loss personally and politically for Dillard. The 21-year lawmaker from Hinsdale served as a top aide to Govs. Jim Edgar and Jim Thompson. He'd like to follow in their footsteps, but the March 18 primary represents an up-or-out challenge. Dillard's state Senate term is up, so he either becomes governor or his time as a veteran of Springfield's corridors of power comes to an end.

"The reality is Michael Madigan is going to be the speaker of the House, and John Cullerton is going to be the Senate president," Dillard said of the top two Chicago Democrats who control the General Assembly. "A Republican governor is going to have to know how to work with Speaker Madigan, President Cullerton and the Democrats to get anything accomplished. That is the one strength I have over any of the other candidates."

Dillard sees his path to victory as simple geography: Last time, there were five candidates from his home base of DuPage County, a large trove of Republican primary votes. This time, he's the only one.

"Everything is different," he said.

On that point, Dillard is correct: The political ground most definitely has shifted under his feet since 2010. Many of his major backers and financial supporters aren't part of Team Dillard this time out. They've flocked to Bruce Rauner, the Winnetka venture capitalist who already has raised 16 times more campaign money than Dillard. Among those making the switch is Jack Roeser, a longtime conservative activist and wealthy donor from Barrington.

To compensate, Dillard has pushed more conservative views as he seeks to broaden his support. Absent the money to air expensive ads on Chicago TV, Dillard has resorted to a "digital strategy" of social media ads attacking Rauner.

At the same time, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

On the campaign trail, Dillard points to campaign issue papers calling for making Illinois a "destination economy" with a "best in class" education system. The proposals are largely repeats from his last run for governor.

"My campaign in 2010 realized our state was dying economically and that we needed to make us competitive again against the rest of the Midwest," he said. "What I said in 2010 is more desperately needed today."

Dillard once again has gotten the endorsement of the Illinois Education Association, the union for teachers outside Chicago. Four years ago the union donated $250,000, and he's looking for at least that amount this time as he struggles to raise campaign money.

Rauner's money has bought the first-time candidate big name recognition in Dillard's political backyard. A recent Tribune/WGN-TV poll found Rauner with 43 percent support in the six-county Chicago area, with Dillard far behind, neck and neck with Brady for second place.

"I think Kirk missed an opportunity to try early on to become the suburban candidate," said Greg Baise, president of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association and a friend dating back to their days working in the Thompson administration. "He has tried to carve out that territory and keep it and hope, like 2010, that base would give him the win. But Rauner has been able to get the suburbs and the collar counties because of being on TV."

In the last campaign, Baise and Chicago businessman Ron Gidwitz were an integral part of Dillard's strategy and money team. Baise is sitting out this year's Republican governor contest. Gidwitz, who is influential in steering campaign dollars from the city's Republican establishment to candidates, is backing Rauner.

One factor in Gidwitz's decision was the $197,229 in loans he and his business made to Dillard's failed 2010 bid — an amount the state senator did not repay when he closed out his previous campaign fund.

"I decided not to make it an issue because I don't think Republicans ought to damage each other," Gidwitz said. "I'm not going to say anything bad about Kirk Dillard. He's a friend. ... Why pull his wings off?"

Dillard shrugged off Gidwitz's defection.

"When I win the primary, I'm sure Ron will be helping me in the general election," Dillard said. "I'm not a multimillionaire. I'm a middle-class west suburbanite, and I don't travel in those same circles as CEOs."

Growing up, Dillard traveled in more working-class circles. He was born on Chicago's North Side, a few blocks from Wrigley Field. His father was a high school history and social studies teacher and his mother a surgical nurse. The family moved to River Grove and eventually Hinsdale.

The oldest of three children, Dillard graduated from Hinsdale Central High School, received a bachelor of arts degree in political science and economics at Western Illinois University in Macomb and got his law degree from DePaul University in 1982. After law school, Dillard worked as a legislative lobbyist for Gov. Thompson and then joined the firm that became Locke Lord LLP, where he is a partner. He later was named Gov. Edgar's chief of staff. In 1993, Dillard was appointed to a vacancy in the state Senate, where he has served ever since.

In 2000, the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative group, questioned why Dillard had been listed by his law firm as a registered state lobbyist, particularly when he was dealing with issues like tort reform, the effort to curb high jury awards in personal injury cases. Dillard said his law firm listed him at that time because it sometimes did corporate work with the Illinois Department of Revenue and other state agencies. His law firm no longer has him on its list of lobbyists.

"I've never been a lobbyist," he said. "I don't do that stuff. We're a big international law firm. We don't lobby Springfield. We don't do work in the General Assembly. It's corporate legal work."

Regrouping

After falling just short in the primary last time, Dillard stayed in the Senate and plotted another run for the state's top office. Long viewed as part of the GOP establishment's moderate wing, Dillard has tried to change that perception in this campaign.

Last October, Dillard turned out to speak at a statehouse rally of gay marriage opponents prior to the vote that legalized it in Illinois.

"If I were governor of this state, many things would be different. But one thing would be different — we might not have to have this rally because I have said that I would veto the gay marriage bill that's pending in front of the Illinois House," Dillard told the crowd. "A man, a father and a mother are not interchangeable in society."

It won him the backing of David Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute and its political arm, Illinois Family Action, groups that put the rally together. Dillard has said he would sign a repeal of same-sex marriage but doubts it would ever reach the governor's desk.

State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said groups like Smith's provide Dillard with a dedicated core conservative constituency.

"That hard-core base, the more conservative base, they're more hard-core voters," Syverson said. "In a primary, it's about getting the message out to the base, not the shotgun effect that Rauner is doing" through TV ads, Syverson said.

Dillard does not readily acknowledge the pursuit of more socially conservative voters this time around. But, he said, "I understand the universe of the Republican primary better than I did last time."

The conflict of social conservatism and moderates in GOP ranks continues to be an issue — particularly when Republican candidates know they will have to reach a broader base to defeat a Democrat in the general election.

"I'm a reasonable person that listens to all sides," Dillard said. "That gives me a more moderate persona. I'm not hard-edged."

One symbol of that persona surfaced during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, when Dillard appeared in Iowa TV ads to vouch for home-state candidate Barack Obama's ability to work across the aisle on the issue of ethics. Dillard's GOP credentials were called into question.

"When a colleague stands with me on an issue like ethics, and asks me to vouch for it, I don't cut and run on them," Dillard said. Still, he acknowledged, "If I could do it again, knowing that it would be used against me in a way, I probably would not have done it. It was about ethics and nothing more."

Voting record

As he tries to explain his bona fides, particularly on fiscal issues, Dillard continues to drop the Edgar name, though with slightly less frequency than he did four years ago.

But in a financially troubled state government, Dillard's position on the state income tax increase set to expire in January — the most important money question among the candidates for governor — hasn't always been clear.

Last fall, in a statement to the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Dillard said he would "veto any increase in the state income tax" as well as "overhaul our tax code." A campaign spokesman told the newspaper that the veto pledge included any extension of the current tax rates. But Dillard, noting the uncertainty surrounding the elimination of $4.1 billion in annual revenue from the state's budget, now says the reduction may have to be delayed or phased out.

Dillard voted against the landmark Illinois public pension law in December after having voted for earlier versions. He denied his opponents' criticism that his vote was politically motivated to try to win the backing of public employee unions.

"We could have taken another seven or eight days and done it right," he said. "(The bill) is probably big enough" to fix the pension systems, Dillard said, "but I'd like to know for sure."

Illegal immigration remains a controversial topic among Republicans, and in 2011 Dillard voted for a program to allow children of immigrants in the country illegally to take part in a college scholarship program. A year later he voted for a measure granting immigrants driver's licenses, explaining that the proposal was backed by the state's major auto insurance companies.

"The last time I checked, Republicans were a big minority party in Illinois, and whether it's taking support from selected union members or working with a member of the other party or with minorities, our state party needs that," he said.

Crossroads approaching

When Dillard ran for governor last time, he knew if he lost that he'd return to his Illinois Senate seat — the result of running in the middle of a four-year term. This time his term expires next year, and others are running in his district.

Yet while there's no going back to Springfield if he loses, Dillard's campaign style often appears to lack what might be an expected sense of urgency.

"That's just his personality," Syverson said. "Sometimes, you have to fake that — run into a room instead of walking — to show that sense of urgency. ... It's a good style when you're leading, but when you're campaigning, it may not work as well."

Dillard said his presence is "forceful, but it's not an in-your-face style" — an approach reminiscent of former Gov. Edgar.

"I'm a person who has children, a family, I stay active with my church, I have law partners and I have a well-balanced life," Dillard said. "My life does not center totally around politics, and I try to make time for my kids and my outside interests."

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ElectionsLaws and LegislationKirk DillardIllinois Governor
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