Standing before reporters in Chicago earlier this month, Sen. Kirk Dillard was grinning ear to ear.
The state’s largest union of education employees, the Illinois Education Association, announced it would endorse Dillard in the Republican primary, which would undoubtedly come with a much-needed financial infusion to his campaign fund.
Right about then, Dillard snagged an endorsement from the Daily Herald newspaper, which circulates in the collar counties where pockets of voters who tend to pull Republican ballots reside. And on Friday, two pro-life groups put their support behind Dillard.
After suffering setbacks in the launch of his campaign last year, Dillard may be hitting his stride at just the right time. “Momentum is clearly on my side,” Dillard said in an interview with the Sun-Times.
In a series of polls, Dillard has taken a back seat to his opponents. However, as Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford’s campaign has suffered setbacks following a federal lawsuit filed by a former employee, Dillard and Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, have been jockeying to become the alternative to the deep-pocketed frontrunner Bruce Rauner.
The IEA gave Dillard $250,000 in his 2010 run for office when Dillard lost to Brady by a brutal 193 votes.
He’s hoping the recent endorsement helps shift his struggling fundraising, which has suffered since Rauner picked away some of his loyalists, including GOP insider Ron Gidwitz.
Beyond money, Dillard says he’s counting on IEA members who might typically vote for a Democrat to “cross over” in the primary and pull Republican ballots.
“Their volunteers are also helpful, so it’s more than just money,” Dillard said of the IEA endorsement. “Teachers are obviously very motivated voters. . . . This time there will be a cross-over factor that has not been around before.”
Dillard said his campaign is set to air radio ads Downstate. If fundraising comes through, expect Dillard to trot out one of his biggest assets — former Gov. Jim Edgar — in a TV spot. Sit through any candidate forum and it’s a point Dillard repeatedly hits: He’s the best prepared to take on the role of governor because he served as Edgar’s chief of staff from 1990-93.
Rauner has hit Dillard, as well as his other opponents, for being “career politicians” and part of the problem in Springfield. Edgar told the Sun-Times he initially tapped Dillard to work for him because the Hinsdale Republican then had a background in private practice combined with experience working in the governor’s office under former Gov. James Thompson.
“He was a very successful lawyer. He had a sense about Chicago. Whether people like it or not, that’s a third of the population,” Edgar said. “Kirk is a person who gets along with just about anybody. Democrats and Republicans, he can disagree with them in an agreeable way.”
Edgar said when a prickly issue was before him, he would often send Dillard to talk to lawmakers and smooth it over.
“He was very effective when I’d send him to go talk to some of the legislative leaders. He could help bring them around,” Edgar said. “I can’t tell you how important that is in the governor’s office. You’ve got to have the Legislature, you’ve got to have public opinion. That to me is a very important characteristic in a successful governor.”
Dillard studied political science and economics at Western Illinois University and then went on to earn a law degree from DePaul University College of Law. He is a partner with the Chicago-based law firm Locke Lord. Dillard served as a judge on the Court of Claims from 1987-90 then went on to work as the director of legislative affairs for Thompson from 1983-87. He joined the Legislature after serving in Edgar’s office. In 2000, he was dinged by the Center for Public Integrity, which criticized him for being a registered lobbyist while serving as a lawmaker. Then with the law firm Lord, Bissell & Brook, Dillard said he registered to err on the side of caution but never lobbied for the firm.
Since his loss in 2010, Dillard has lurched farther to the right. He appeared at a rally opposing same-sex marriage in Springfield, with Brady being the only other GOP gubernatorial candidate to do so. On Friday, Dillard won the endorsements of two pro-life groups.
In December, Dillard voted against a landmark but controversial pension-reform bill. His running mate, state Rep. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, voted in favor of it.
The most damaging material against Dillard remains an ad he aired boosting then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in 2008. Dillard defends it, saying he worked with Obama in the state Senate to advance the first ethics reform the state had seen in two decades.
“That had nothing to do with anything but ethics,” Dillard said. “I strongly supported Sen. McCain. I was the second top vote-getter for Sen. McCain statewide.”
Still, with Obama’s burgeoning unpopularity with Republicans, airing a pro-Obama Dillard ad remains an effective weapon for any Dillard opponent. “I have to say that I was surprised. Until they ran that ad, he had that primary won,” Edgar said of his opponents using Dillard’s clip against him in 2010. “I just think that’s shortsighted [of Republicans]. It’s important we work together. I cannot underscore enough that is sorely needed in Springfield.”
Edgar defended Dillard, saying it wasn’t an endorsement so much as showing that Dillard is capable of reaching across the aisle.
“That’s a trait that’s very important. You’re not the governor of the Republican party, you’re the governor for the state of Illinois.”
Meet state Sen. Kirk Dillard