Giannoulias wasn’t expecting a return to politics but more than a decade later, he’s back

Secretary of State Jesse White’s decision to retire changed the calculus for 46-year-old Alexi Giannoulias, who is now Illinois’ youngest statewide elected official.

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Alexi Giannoulias give supporters handshakes after giving his victory speech for Illinois Secretary of State during his election night party at the the Sheraton Grand Chicago Riverwalk, Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2022. | Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Alexi Giannoulias give supporters handshakes after giving his victory speech for Illinois Secretary of State during his election night party at the the Sheraton Grand Chicago Riverwalk, Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2022.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Twelve years after his precocious political career was short-circuited by a stinging defeat for U.S. Senate, Alexi Giannoulias completed his comeback Tuesday.

With a comfortable victory over veteran Republican state Rep. Dan Brady for Secretary of State, the 46-year-old Giannoulias resumes his place as Illinois’ youngest statewide elected official and as a future Democratic contender for higher office.

It’s rare for any politician to go 16 years between general election wins. Giannoulias, who was elected state treasurer in 2006 at age 30, will tell you he didn’t expect to ever run again after his 2010 Senate loss to Mark Kirk.

“For a huge portion of that period, I thought I was out [of politics],” Giannoulias told me recently. “I had a fairly comfortable life and anonymity. I married a wonderful person (and now has three young daughters.) I had a little bit of private sector success, and life was good.”

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That changed with Secretary of State Jesse White’s retirement. Giannoulias swears his first move was to study what improvements he could bring to the office, and only later did he explore how to get elected.

What it took was solid fundraising for which he had a $740,000 head start from his old campaign fund, an array of support from influential labor groups and other individuals with whom he had wisely maintained relationships during his hiatus — and a withering primary campaign against City Clerk Anna Valencia.

With Democratic voters outnumbering Republicans in Illinois and hapless Darren Bailey at the top of the GOP ticket, an underfunded Brady never really stood a chance Tuesday. Giannoulias stuck with an upbeat campaign flashing the old Alexi charm.

At this point, Giannoulias says he is focused solely on fulfilling his commitments to modernize the secretary of state’s office, a task he expects will require two terms to complete.

“I have a vision for this office and what I want to do,” Giannoulias said. “I could be wrong, and we get a lot of stuff done in the first term, which would be terrific, but my gut tells me this is more of an eight-year project.”

That doesn’t mean Giannoulias expects Illinois motorists to be patient about his promises to make the office more customer friendly with innovations like appointments at drivers license facilities and digital drivers licenses.

But it could help squelch talk of Giannoulias looking for a promotion in four years when the governor’s office and a U.S. Senate seat are again on the ballot. His eagerness to move up proved his undoing last time.

Giannoulias concedes it was a psychological blow to lose that Senate race to Kirk.

“It hurt very much,” Giannoulias said. “I think I was a little naïve. I thought I would work really hard, and people would meet me and realize I’m a really nice person, and I would win because I had ideas and energy.”

Instead the election turned on a brutal Republican campaign to saddle the young politician with the problems at his family’s failed Broadway Bank, including loans to unsavory characters.

The good news for Giannoulias is he will be judged from here on mainly by how he performs as secretary of state.

Giannoulias told me his interest in public service, not ambition, brought him back to politics. His opportunities to advance will depend on proving that.

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