Two obscure candidates vying for state treasurer


by RUSS STEWART

A whole bunch of words and phrases aptly describe the contest for Illinois state treasurer, none of which have yet registered a blip on the votes’ radar:

Not. Most. Why? Nobody. Uh-oh. Stay Put. Plan No. Mess. Lastly, Blame George Bush. Here’s a synopsis.

Not. Being state treasurer is not rocket science. It’s drab and dull. It’s just arithmetic. State revenue is generated from taxes and fees, it is collected and invested by the treasurer for maximum return, and periodically it is transferred to a state account administered by the comptroller, who pays the state’s bills.

Unfortunately, Illinois collects $2 for every $3 it spends, with a $12 billion annual shortfall. That means that current bills are deferred until the next fiscal year, money is borrowed to pay the bills, or the bills are ignored. The state Constitution mandates a balanced budget. Illinois now has $7 billion in unpaid (primarily Medicaid vendor) bills and total indebtedness of $192 billion, which includes bonded debt of $45 billion and unfunded pensions of $85 billion. Add to that $44 billion annually in retiree health care costs, $2.4 billion owed the federal government for unemployment compensation payouts, and $13 billion in debt interest payments (almost a third of the state’s annual revenue), and Illinois is up the creek without a paddle.

The next treasurer’s job will not be to pay bills, but to decide which bills not to pay.

Most: In a 2011 interview, Republican state Treasurer Dan Rutherford called Illinois the "most bankrupt state," with the worst credit rating and the highest unfunded pension debt. That’s still the case.

Why? Nobody wants to be Illinois treasurer for life, although Republican Judy Baar Topinka, now the state comptroller, kept the job from 1994 to 2006 before losing to Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2006. The job offers some visibility, and it has been a steppingstone to higher office.

A few prior occupants moved on. Republican Bill Scott, who served from 1962 to 1966, became the state attorney general, serving from 1968 to 1981, but he lost a 1980 U.S. Senate primary. Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who served from 1966 to 1970, became a U.S. senator in 1970 but lost races for governor in 1982 and 1986. Stevenson’s successor, Democrat Al Dixon, served from 1970 to 1976, was elected secretary of state in 1976, and won Stevenson’s Senate seat in 1980 but lost to Carol Moseley Braun in 1992.

Of late, the office has been a flame-out. Rutherford, who was elected in 2010, was the odds-on favorite to win the 2014 Republican nomination for governor until allegations surfaced that he harassed office employees. That’s poison in a Republican primary. Despite having raised $2 million, Rutherford got a dismal 7.5 percent of the vote, and the in-office "investigation" that Rutherford promised has gone nowhere.

Democrat Jerry Cosentino, who served from 1978 to 1982 and from 1986 to 1990, lost bids for secretary of state to Jim Edgar in 1982 and to George Ryan in 1990. Governor Pat Quinn, who served from 1990 to 1994, now governor, lost to Ryan in 1994. Democrat Alexi Giannulias, who served from 2006 to 2010, lost the 2010 U.S. Senate race to Mark Kirk.

Nobody: The contestants are state Representative Tom Cross (R-97) of Oswego, in south suburban Kendall County, and state Senator Mike Frerichs (D-52) of Champaign-Urbana. Cross, who recently resigned as the Illinois House Republican leader, has been in Springfield since 1992; Frerichs has been a senator since 2006.

Neither candidate is well known. Frerichs disparages Cross as a "22-year Springfield insider," which is ludicrous. Being Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s counterpart in the House made Cross irrelevant and inconsequential, mired in a 71-47 minority. That’s why he’s bailing out to run for treasurer. Frerichs is a close ally of Democratic Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, who cleared out the field in 2013 and got Frerichs slated for treasurer.

"We (Democrats) need geographic diversity," Frerichs said. Normally, Democratic statewide tickets are packed with Chicagoans. Of seven statewide contenders in 2010, the only Downstater was Sheila Simon for lieutenant governor. This year the Democrats’ ticket includes Frerichs, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Springfield and Simon, of Carbondale, for comptroller. Frerichs’ problem is that he is unknown north of Interstate 80, had only $1.3 million of cash on hand as of June 3, and has no special appeal to Chicago minorities. He cannot win if Quinn loses to Bruce Rauner by more than 200,000 votes.

Uh-Oh. "It’s stumbling and bumbling," former Republican state chairman Jack Dorgan said of the Frerichs campaign. "He’s doing a great job of losing."

Among Frerichs’ miscues: When he announced his candidacy, Frerichs’ Web site posted a video of the senator demanding the end of "free, lifetime health care for state legislators," but he is on record voting against that ban. Oops. Frerichs wants to make the treasurer’s investments more Illinois-centric, and he slammed "overseas" investments. The office’s only overseas investments are in Israeli-issued government bonds. Oops. There goes the Jewish vote. Frerichs touts the fact that he is "a prepared and experienced finance official," having been the Champaign County auditor for 4 years. Cross’ campaign is preparing a slew of negative television ads which will accuse Frerichs of "bad math" as county auditor, of "$3 million in bad investments," of creating $2.5 million in new unfunded liability, of being dismissed by the county board as the agent for the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, of hiring his past campaign chairman as a county supervisor of assessments (who later resigned), and of backing a "no show" replacement for himself as auditor when he won the Senate seat in 2006.

"He has enough baggage to sink a battleship," joked Dorgan.

Now Frerichs is embroiled in a controversy about whether he paid the property taxes on his Senate and political offices, which are housed separately in the same building in Champaign. Oops. First he said that it was the Department of Revenue’s fault, then he said the bill was sent to the wrong address, and then his aide said that the lease didn’t require the tenant to pay the taxes. Cross will have fun with this miscue.

Frerichs has not defined himself. Cross’ supposed torrent of negative ads will soon solve that problem. Not to worry, according to Frerichs’ aide. "Cross hasn’t got the money," the aide said.

Stay Put: Rutherford is an astute and ideologically moderate politician who won the office in 2010 by a surprising 161,049-vote margin, while Republican Bill Brady was losing the governorship to Quinn by 31,834 votes. Rutherford, a Pontiac state senator, amassed 1,811,293 votes, more than Senate winner Mark Kirk’s 1,778,698 and Brady’s 1,713,385.

Of course, Rutherford’s opponent was a pushover: south suburban Cook County/Will County state representative Robin Kelly, who had no Downstate appeal and minimal appeal to white suburbanites and who was outspent 3-1. Kelly moved on the win Jesse Jackson Jr.’s congressional seat in 2013. Had Rutherford sought re-election, he would have been a cinch to win, and no alleged scandals would have surfaced.

If Cross expects to win in 2014, he must replicate Rutherford’s 2010 game plan. In 2010 Brady won the 95 Downstate counties by 354,146 votes and the six Collar Counties by 114,583 votes but lost Chicago and the Cook County suburbs by 500,553 votes. By contrast, Rutherford lost Cook County by 387,353 votes. While Brady got less than 20 percent of the vote in Chicago, Rutherford got nearly 30 percent, and while Brady got less than 40 percent of the vote in the suburbs, Rutherford got nearly 50 percent. If Cross does not lose Cook County by more than 400,000 votes, he’s a winner.

Plan No. Cross has a plan, which Frerichs derides as "Plan No." Frerichs said that the state’s "vital services" cannot be cut. "Public policy requires that we put some (state) money where people need it," he said. Frerichs said that the job "is not just about numbers. We must have compassion for the needs of the people."

Frerichs attributed the state’s fiscal woes to the 2008 "global monetary collapse." In other words, blame George Bush, not the Democrats who have controlled state government since 2002, not Quinn, and certainly not legislators like himself. "Idiotic," Cross responds. "The treasurer’s job is not to invest money where he thinks it will do the most good. His job is to get the highest rate of return." Cross said that Frerichs "is really liberal. He doesn’t understand that the way to spend more money on education is to borrow less money and to spend less money on the interest."

Cross promises to fulfill his "fiduciary duty" to balance the state budget. "I will sue the General Assembly if necessary to force them to fund every program, and stop the deficit spending," he said. "I will have an integrity unit that will expose bureaucrats who lie about the state’s finances. In March of 2013 the state was charged with securities fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission for misleading bond investors. I will issue an annual report card highlighting state debt and legislative complicity."

Clean Up The Mess. While Cross is running a macro-campaign, blaming Democrats, Frerichs is running a micro-campaign, claiming Rutherford’s office is filled with political patronage hiring. "I will bring reform," he said, noting that Rutherford has been accused of hiring the pals or offspring of Republican politicians as interns.

My prediction: Cross wins.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.


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