Anna Valencia, once a rising political star, weighs city clerk re-election after losing badly in secretary of state race
Former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias got 52.7% of the vote to Valencia’s 34.4% to succeed Jesse White as secretary of state.
Anna Valencia was once seen as a rising star in Chicago and Illinois politics with seemingly limitless possibilities, including mayor or governor.
Now, after being clobbered by former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in an unsuccessful run for Illinois secretary of state, Valencia almost certainly will face a primary challenge to hang onto her current post as Chicago city clerk. And that’s if she doesn’t take a break from politics to lick her wounds from her losing bid for state office.
To say Valencia fell short of those once-lofty expectations in her run for secretary of state would be an understatement. Giannoulias solidified his political resurrection by getting 52.7% of the vote to Valencia’s 34.4%. Ald. David Moore (17th) was far behind, with 8.9%.
What was so surprising about the Democratic primary to fill the seat being vacated by longtime Secretary of State Jesse White wasn’t that ethics was a central theme but that it was about Valencia’s ethics.
The city clerk and her lobbyist-husband Reyahd Kazmi played so fast and loose in mixing his lobbying business with her official emails that people forgot about the scandal at Broadway Bank, the failed Chicago bank owned by the Giannoulias family that doled out loans to people with alleged ties to organized crime while Alexi Giannoulias was a senior loan officer.
The Broadway Bank failure ended up costing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. more than $383 million.
Giannoulias never was accused of wrongdoing, but the scandal torpedoed his 2010 U.S. Senate campaign against Republican Mark Kirk and sent Giannoulias into political exile.
Valencia’s husband-and-wife lobbying scandal now threatens to do the same to her.
“When you’re coming into elected office, there’s growing pains,” Valencia said. “I lived it out very publicly. It’s been very painful. And I learned there to be more careful with my professional and personal email. That’s a lesson I had to learn that was tough. But no regrets.
“Reyahd and I have always had our separate careers. We’ll continue to do the same thing. No regrets. I wish the media wouldn’t have focused so much on my emails and been more focused on my policies. But everyone wants a news story, and my opponent inflated things so he could win. And it worked. He won. He out-spent me five-to-one. Had I had more money, it would have been different.”
Kazmi was a consultant for clout-heavy Monterrey Security and for IGNITE, a technology company behind the CityKey ID program that Valencia championed as city clerk.
The clerk blames opposition research bankrolled by the Giannoulias campaign for uncovering hundreds of emails and text messages from her city accounts about her husband’s lobbying business.
“That’s what he wanted to do, and he had more money to communicate it,” she said of Giannoulias. “Until we start investing in women in politics … and people of color and giving them the same amount of money that we’re giving men, we’re gonna get the same result, unfortunately. ... Money is a big thing in politics. It’s not about merit or your record. It’s about the money. That’s unfortunate.”
Valencia said she plans to take the month of July off to catch up on sleep, vacation with her husband and reconnect with her 2-year-old daughter before deciding whether to seek re-election as clerk in a field she expects will include several serious challengers emboldened by the lobbying scandal.
But seeing opponents file to run “won’t make me decide whether or not I’m gonna do it,” she said. “It’s gonna be whether this is the best road for me or if there’s somewhere else I can serve and do something different.
“If I don’t, it’s because I want to do something different, and I want to serve somewhere else and maybe make a difference on the nonprofit foundation, private-sector side that I haven’t done before. I’ve only worked in government. And I may want to just try something different. I’m 37. I’m young. I’ve got a long career ahead of me.”
Had Valencia parlayed the heavyweight endorsements she got from White, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., into a stronger showing against Giannoulias, she might have been encouraged to join the crowded field of candidates challenging embattled Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
But Valencia said: “I’m not gonna run for mayor. Definitely not. I don’t want that job. No. No. No. No. It’s not my time, and I don’t want to do that right now. That’s where people go to end their careers. I’m just starting.”
Asked whether she will endorse Lightfoot, Valencia said: “I don’t know. I’ve had a great relationship with her and [city treasurer] Melissa Conyears-Ervin. I respect both of them. We’ve worked on things together. But I’m not sure.
“I’m exhausted. I’m gonna take some time off. And I’ll hit you back at the end of July and have a lot more about that.”
A native of downstate Granite City, Valencia is the first member of her close-knit Mexican American family to graduate from college.
Her father once offered to “sell a kidney or liver” to pay her tuition at the University of Illinois. She got a full scholarship.
After interviewing for a job she didn’t get on then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s staff, Valencia was connected through a family friend to a job as a campaign organizer for the Virginia Democratic Party.
She graduated, bought a car and drove to Virginia, where she canvassed seven days a week in a heavily Republican stronghold “where they called me a baby-killer,” Valencia once said.
Politics was in her blood from a young age. In third grade, she wrote an essay about wanting to become the first woman president.
Between Democratic campaigns in Virginia and Michigan, she returned to Illinois to help Democratic U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley and Bill Foster, then ran Durbin’s 2014 re-election campaign. She also spent time on the staff of now-former Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago.
As city clerk, Valencia has championed the CityKey ID card that got her in trouble over her husband’s lobbying business. The ID was controversial at first but has been wildly successful in giving undocumented immigrants, ex-offenders, homeless Chicagoans and others from vulnerable populations the identification they need to get a job.
She also has worked with Lightfoot to seek greater equity in Chicago’s ticketing, towing and booting policies, which have targeted minorities and forced thousands into bankruptcy.
Recently, she helped finally move the Chicago City Council into the 21st century, switching to electronic voting, which has been a staple for years in the Illinois General Assembly and other legislative bodies nationwide.
On the day in January 2017 she was sworn in as city clerk, Mayor Rahm Emanuel used the Yiddish word “nachas” to describe the pride Valencia’s parents must have felt.
Emanuel praised the woman he appointed to fill the vacancy created by Susana Mendoza’s election as state comptroller, saying Valencia brought an “incredible smile and incredible energy” to every job she ever held.
That included helping Emanuel get elected and re-elected, working for him as a key political operative and as his director of intergovernmental affairs.
After her resounding defeat to Giannoulias, Valencia said: “It was rough. I’m not gonna say it was easy. But I gave it my best. I ran a campaign I was proud of, and that’s all you can do. We had a woman in the race. I wanted to make sure there was a woman in the race, so we were at the table. We did what we could.
“I had Senator Durbin, Secretary White, Governor Pritzker, Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton and others stand with me because they know who I am. They know my character, my integrity. I guarantee I’m gonna have strong support if I choose to run again. I’m not worried about that.”
Even if she doesn’t seek a second elected term as city clerk, “I’m still hopeful,” Valencia said. “I’m gonna still be in the fight. You’ll still see me using my platform. And I’m not gonna give up. There’s too much at stake in this country and this state. The Supreme Court race here in Illinois is gonna be extremely close. We’ve got to make sure we win those. And so I’m gonna do my part.”