SPRINGFIELD — State Treasurer Dan Rutherford first met Emile Smith in the late 1980s when both were interested in joining the crew of a 40-foot sailboat that raced in Lake Michigan, starting a friendship that continues to this day.

“We were in many a hairy moment, where you had to make quick decisions about lines you were grabbing and had to deal with the idiosyncrasies of people,” said Smith, a transplanted Fenwick High School graduate who now runs a woodworking business in Seneca, Wis. “If something goes wrong, lot of people can get hurt at once, and that can be awful.”

Smith, 49, who is married and the father of a 16-year-old son, said he crewed with Rutherford multiple times over the years, respected his “ability to get people to work together” and regards the treasurer like a “big brother.”

“I absolutely would sail with that guy anytime of the week,” Smith said. “Dan just connects with people really well.”

But if Rutherford’s Republican campaign for governor is metaphorically like one of those boats that he, Smith and others turned into a summertime hobby year after year, it is dangerously close to being swamped heading into the March 18 primary.

The first-term treasurer announced his gubernatorial bid in June and, as the only GOP statewide officeholder to make a run, immediately was positioned to be a top-tier candidate who possibly could end the 11-year Democratic hold on the executive mansion.

In raw votes, Rutherford, in his bid for treasurer, had outpolled Gov. Pat Quinn statewide in 2010. Rutherford closed out 2013 with a respectable $1.39 million in his campaign fund. And he had been polling solidly in second place in the four-way GOP gubernatorial field behind private-equity investor Bruce Rauner.

But in early February, Rutherford’s campaign began taking on water because of a federal lawsuit from a former staffer, who alleged Rutherford made improper sexual advances toward him, allowed a climate of sexual harassment to exist in the treasurer’s office and pressured staffers in the treasurer’s office to do campaign work on his behalf.

Rutherford forcefully denied those allegations, initially laying blame for the tempest with Rauner but backing off that contention later. Rutherford also launched an internal investigation into staffer Edmund Michalowski’s complaint, but he pulled back once Michalowski sued.

The allegations came on top of reports about Rutherford’s repeated travels as treasurer, including numerous trips abroad and dozens of domestic trips in and out of the state where he roomed with an office underling in hotels.

Any hopes of concentrating on how to erode Rauner’s commanding lead in the polls, on what to do about Illinois’ expiring temporary income tax hike or anything else in the gubernatorial race quickly have become drowned out by allegations that have put his campaign in full-scale crisis mode. For voters, those allegations likely won’t be tested in court until after the primary.

Rutherford has attempted to quell the controversy at public events by bringing it up himself and insisting he won’t drop out of the governor’s race.

“I think people see through this what it is,” Rutherford said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “I mean, here’s someone who’s made allegations, purportedly of something years and years ago, with no substantiation to it, and it comes up just a few weeks before an election. It’s very political, and this is a very blood-sport state.

“I’m getting tremendous amounts of support, and we’re moving forward,” he said.

The controversy has put an uncomfortable spotlight on Rutherford’s personal life as a single man, leading one TV interviewer in early February to ask him about his sexual orientation. In that WLS-Ch. 7 interview, Rutherford curtly denied he is gay, which he repeated to the Sun-Times and said previously to the Windy City Times.

“No. Next question,” he said.

Gov. Pat Quinn, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Secretary of State Jesse White, who like Rutherford are all single, have generally not been subjected to questions about their personal lives.

Rutherford, who told the Sun-Times he regards any question about his own sexual orientation as “inappropriate,” steered clear of addressing the general fairness of him facing personal scrutiny that somehow fellow statewide officeholders have been able to avoid.

“I’m not going to go out and speculate on other people or what should be done or not with them,” Rutherford said. “That’s your business.”

The meltdown has put Rutherford in a defensive mode, slowing his campaign fundraising to a trickle and causing him to try to shelter his immediate family from the fallout that has thrown his campaign far off course.

“I’m almost afraid to answer anything,” said his mother, Carol Rutherford, when contacted by the Sun-Times to talk about his youth and her son’s early interest in politics. She declined to respond to any questions, and a campaign spokesman later made an unusual request of the Sun-Times to make no further contacts with Rutherford’s family.

The treasurer, 58, grew up in downstate Pontiac and worked in his family’s pizza restaurant through middle school and high school. He attended Illinois State University, where he was student body president, and worked road construction during the summer to help graduate debt-free.

Rutherford dabbled in politics early, coordinating a downstate congressional district in 1980 for Ronald Reagan’s winning presidential bid. Declining a staff job in the Reagan White House, Rutherford was tabbed by former Gov. James Thompson to head the Illinois Department of Commerce’s international business division, according to his campaign website.

In the mid-1980s, Rutherford latched on with ServiceMaster Co. and was put in charge of licensing the company’s businesses in 16 countries, eventually rising to become a vice president at the firm whose subsidiaries include Terminix, Tru-Green, Merry Maids, American Home Shield and ServiceMaster Clean.

His campaign website bio indicates he has set foot on all seven continents, including Antarctica, has participated in numerous Chicago-to-Mackinaw Island sailing races and is an avid scuba diver.

Rutherford’s legislative career began in the Illinois House in 1993, where he remained until moving to the state Senate in 2003. He became state treasurer in 2011.

In the House, Rutherford voted to impose Cook County property tax caps, limit damage awards in lawsuits, require that parents be notified before their minor children obtain abortions and allow gun owners to carry their weapons in public places. He twice opposed efforts to lower the state’s drunk-driving threshold to a .08 blood-alcohol limit.

As a state senator, he voted against raising the minimum wage, casino expansion, legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and prohibiting smoking in bars, restaurants and other public areas. Rutherford voted in favor of school-voucher legislation that would have applied to Chicago and was the lone Senate Republican to vote for civil unions in 2010.

“This legislation today, it is opposed by some and it’s uncomfortable for some,” Rutherford said during a floor speech about civil unions that colleagues regard as the most memorable of his legislative career. “But the one thing that I do know about the people of Illinois is that they want fairness. The people of Illinois, they don’t want discrimination. There’s going to be much said about this legislation. I understand that. But one thing that I do know, it’s the right thing to do.”

Rutherford said after that vote, he didn’t endure any fallout from his Senate Republican colleagues, whom he said characterized his stance as “courageous.”

“I had people say you were courageous. ‘Congratulations.’ There was no animosity,” Rutherford said when asked by the Sun-Times about that vote. “And now we go onto the next subject.”

Rutherford was not prolific at getting legislation to the governor’s desk during his legislative career. But for most of his time in the House and Senate, Democrats controlled the chambers and flow of bills.

Rutherford said the legislation he carried of which he is proudest was a measure in the House that changed how nursing homes billed the state Medicaid program for patient care. It changed reimbursement rates in the state’s Medicaid program so a resident’s general health and level of independence was taken into account, allowing homes to get more from Springfield for residents in greater need of care.

“It was minutiae, complicated and didn’t get a lot of upfront and accomplished publicity. But that’s the kind of guy I am. That’s the kind of minutiae I like to go through. I think it helped people, particularly families and those who were residents of nursing homes,” Rutherford said.

As treasurer, Rutherford said he has increased the amount of unclaimed assets returned to their rightful owners to $369 million during his first three years in office. And investment in the college-savings programs his office administers has jumped to a record $6 billion, Rutherford said.

Two polls released in the past week — one from We Ask America and the other from rival Bill Brady’s pollster — have Rutherford in last place in the four-way gubernatorial race, a drop that coincides with the allegations brought against him.

His longtime sailing buddy, Smith, said the allegations he has read and heard don’t square with the Rutherford he first got to know on the deck of a sailboat plying Lake Michigan and suspects there are political motives somehow underpinning the allegations.

“If you’re asking me, did anything ever happen? Hell, no,” Smith said. “I really, really am scrappy; pissed off someone would level this at him. Especially now. He’s worked so hard to get where he is and done lot of good things for people who don’t have a lot of representation.”

Email: dmckinney@suntimes.com

Twitter: @davemckinney123