SPRINGFIELD — After Republican Bill Brady eked out a razor-thin primary victory in his 2010 bid for governor, Gov. Pat Quinn hit him out of the gate with an Internet video that a London newspaper described as “America’s nastiest political ad.”
The Web commercial, punctuated by what sounded like the screams of dying animals, depicted Brady as a ghastly dog killer for sponsoring legislation sought by an animal shelter in his district that wanted authority to gas rabid strays en masse.
In the face of criticism from animal-rights activists, Brady promptly pulled back from the legislation, vowing to veto it if he were governor. But the first blow of the 2010 general election had already landed squarely on his own jaw.
Outside of his family, few knew that Brady himself was a dog owner or that his family’s longtime golden retriever, Lady, would succumb to cancer shortly before his bitter loss to Quinn in the fall by a mere 31,834 votes out of 3.4 million cast.
Nor was there any publicity about how after the death of that dog, Brady found two puppies of the same breed, Winston and Kelly, in early 2011 and partly relied on their presence to take the sting out of a rugged campaign in which he was jabbed by Quinn for wanting to cut the minimum wage, opposing abortion for rape and incest victims and being open to teaching creationism in public schools.
“It was probably one of the best things we ever did,” his wife, Nancy Brady, said of the decision to get the pups. “Billy would come home from Springfield to be with the puppies. It was amazing therapy.”
Whatever therapy was gleaned from those canines had better be enduring because Brady has re-immersed himself in the piranha-filled political channel of an election year with his aim once again on the governor’s office.
It’s his third pursuit of the executive mansion, finishing a distant third in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary, winning the GOP primary in 2010 by just 193 votes and coming within a political eyelash of defeating Quinn later that year in the general election.
This time around, Brady finds himself squarely in the role of underdog, having taken some hard lumps in the past, running a shoestring campaign that may not have the resources to air a single TV commercial before the March 18 primary and getting outspent by GOP front-runner Bruce Rauner by a nearly 54-1 margin during the last quarter of 2013.
Remarkably, Brady had more money sitting in his political funds at the close of last year than he did at the end of 2009, as the Republican gubernatorial primary was in full bloom. But it’s a pyrrhic victory for Brady because his fundraising has dried up and Rauner’s resources seem almost limitless.
Instead, Brady is hoping the name identification he built for himself four years ago will help him endure Rauner’s withering advertising juggernaut, and that polls showing Rauner with a comfortable lead over the four-way field grossly misread the mood of a GOP electorate willing to grant another chance at Quinn.
“My past performance makes me the most electable because people know me, and they’re comfortable with me,” Brady told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Of his opponents, Brady said, “Any of them coming out of the primary will start with less than 150,000 votes. I know how tough it was to get to 1.7 or 1.8 million [votes] we need to get to. We came close. But we’ve got a base to build on that no one else has in the race for governor. And I’ve had negative ads thrown against me and been tested and tried. No one else has.”
Ranked second in a new Chicago Tribune poll, Brady is positioned to pick off support from the flagging campaign of state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who has been reeling from allegations this month of sexual harassment from a senior administrator in his office. Rutherford, who insists he will stay in the race, and Brady are the two downstaters in the four-way GOP nomination fight.
“What the polling data shows is this has come down to a two-person race: me and Bruce Rauner’s checkbook,” Brady said.
During his short-lived 2006 bid for governor, when he finished a distant third in a four-way GOP primary, Brady described himself as a “new generation of leadership” for the Illinois Republican Party that had its legs knocked out from beneath it by former Gov. George Ryan’s stunning political collapse in 2002.
But today, Brady is being hit as a “career politician” in ads paid for by a little-known, seemingly Rauner-aligned group called “Mid America Fund,” which condemned Brady, Rutherford and Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, for having “supported millions in pork-barrel spending.”
Brady, 52, arrived in Springfield in 1993 and served four terms in the Illinois House before moving to the state Senate in 2003, where he has been ever since. For all but about two years of that time, he has served in the minority, hindering his ability to make major legislative splashes.
During Quinn’s reign, Brady has been a reliable conservative vote, opposing the temporary increase in the state income tax, same-sex marriage, abolition of the death penalty and medicinal use of marijuana. He backed legislation permitting Illinois gun owners to carry their weapons in public places.
But Brady broke ranks with many in his party by voting to authorize undocumented immigrants to get state driver’s licenses so long as they undergo training and carry auto insurance, a provision backed by the insurance industry. State Farm and Country Financial are based in his district.
Brady, who opposes abortions in cases of rape and incest, has drawn high praise from anti-abortion groups and describes himself as the only true “pro-life” candidate in this year’s Republican field.
If he emerges from the primary, Brady said he won’t let Quinn define him as an extremist on abortion as he did four years ago, even though his views on the procedure have not softened. It clearly amounts to a lesson learned that his stances on social issues clipped his 2010 chances.
“The mistake I made in the last election is because we were so focused on economic issues, we didn’t address the social issues, and [Quinn] was able to paint me the way he wanted and use scare tactics. But the truth of the matter is, no Republican governor — no governor in the country — can eliminate a woman’s right to choose in the case of rape or incest or in the first several months of pregnancy. And so it’s a complete distortion of the truth to say a candidate for governor would eliminate a woman’s right to choose,” Brady said.
“I’m not going to shy away from my personal pro-life views. But that’s a distortion and scare tactic that we won’t allow anybody to get by with this time,” he said.
Brady was a leading voice for pension reform, serving on a conference committee that helped move along the issue last fall and eventually voting for the package that got to Quinn’s desk in December and that now is the subject of litigation by public-sector unions and retiree groups. Rauner, Dillard and Rutherford each opposed the legislation.
“My three Republican opponents say they’re for pension reform, but when it comes time to put your money where your mouth is, they all ran away from it,” Brady said.
Brady’s work on pensions even drew praise from the chairman of the pension conference committee, state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, who characterized Brady as “an extremist” during his 2010 contest against Quinn but now says the Bloomington Republican has “moderated some.”
“I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t get overly political, both from the standpoint of the task force as well as when we finally presented the bill,” Raoul told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“It wasn’t what I was accustomed to coming out of Bill Brady’s mouth on the [Senate] floor. He’s certainly given a lot of what seemed to be gubernatorial candidate speeches during debates on the floor, even with campaigns being years away. But I just remember coming away this time and looking at my colleagues and saying that was a good floor speech he gave,” Raoul said.
Brady, a homebuilder and real estate developer, grew up in Bloomington in an affluent family that included two brothers. Their father made his wealth in the construction and lumberyard businesses and was able to afford family vacations in Europe and Florida. Things were so flush that Brady’s father retired briefly at age 36 in 1977.
But his fortunes reversed in the 1980s, when Brady’s father came out of retirement and was forced to file for bankruptcy protection because of skyrocketing interest rates.
Barely out of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, where he met wife Nancy, the state senator wound up helping his father rebuild by putting his paychecks back into the family businesses to help restore them to health.
Today, Brady lists extensive real estate holdings and ownership stakes in a downstate radio station and a Jimmy John’s franchise in his most recent state economic-interest filing.
For the most part this winter, Brady has waged a low-profile primary campaign, which undoubtedly is a reflection of having a little more than $211,000 in his political accounts as of December 31 — an amount incapable of funding even a moderately expensive legislative race.
His only nicks have come from reports about voting for tax-subsidy legislation that helped build an assisted-living facility on land he once owned in downstate Gibson City and separate comments he made during a gubernatorial debate in Naperville this month that appeared insensitive to the unemployed — remarks for which he later apologized.
“What I had said at that function was that a number of manufacturers around the state have told me they were having trouble getting some of their people to come back to work given the fact they were now on unemployment,” he said. “What was insensitive about that statement is it didn’t take into consideration all the people in Illinois who are trying to find a job where they can go back to work. I should’ve been very clear about that.”
When Brady lost the 2010 election by less than a single percentage point to Quinn, Nancy Brady was certain her husband would want another try at governor, even though he says he didn’t make up his mind to run again until last February.
“I can tell you, after the devastating loss, as well as I know him, I thought to myself he’s going to do this again. He was so focused and so determined that I basically took all the stuff from the campaign, put it in a box, put it in the attic and thought to myself ‘I’m going to be getting this out again,’ ” she said. “I just knew it.”
Nancy Brady is one of the only spouses in this race who shows up regularly on the campaign stump on her husband’s behalf, and she said she knows a perception exists among voters in her party that he had his opportunity.
“The question everybody asks me is, ‘Why is he doing it again? He had his chance.’ My thought is, I didn’t know people could be given only so many chances,” she said.
“When somebody is that passionate or that driven about something, it isn’t going to go away,” she said of her husband, with whom she has three children, now all adults.
With those golden retriever puppies each now 3 years old, Bill Brady isn’t concerned that with his earlier setbacks in seeking the governorship, he wears the ‘perennial candidate’ label and the tarnish of being a loser at the polls.
“Not at all,” he said.
“We lost by a few thousand votes, but we won 98 out of 102 counties. And as I traveled around the state, people have said you have to finish the job you started,” Brady said. “So many people have told me I’m the only who can probably win.”