Downstate Republicans battle to reclaim — and freshen up — ‘outdated’ secretary of state’s office

Bloomington state Rep. Dan Brady and former federal prosecutor John Milhiser each say they’ve demonstrated the ability to rack up bipartisan support during lengthy, distinguished careers in central Illinois political circles.

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Republican candidates for Illinois secretary of state: state Rep. Dan Brady (left) and former U.S. Attorney for Central Illinois John C. Milhiser.

Republican candidates for Illinois secretary of state: state Rep. Dan Brady (left) and former U.S. Attorney for Central Illinois John C. Milhiser.

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It’s been more than 23 years since a Republican served as Illinois secretary of state, but the last two to do so sprang to even greater political heights, with both Jim Edgar and George Ryan rising to governor in the 1990s.

Ryan also ended up in prison after being convicted of federal corruption charges, some of which stemmed from a bribery scheme under his watch at the secretary of state’s office.

Now, with Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White giving up the iron grip he’s held on the office since 1999, the two men vying for the Republican nomination to succeed him say they aren’t interested in using the secretary of state post as a political stepping stone — and that they won’t tolerate the corruption that has popped up in the office in the past from both sides of the aisle.

Bloomington state Rep. Dan Brady and former federal prosecutor John Milhiser each say they’ve demonstrated the ability to rack up bipartisan support during lengthy, distinguished careers in central Illinois political circles. That’ll be key for whichever Republican advances to the general election in a state that has gone increasingly Democratic since White first emerged as a top Illinois vote-getter.

But Brady and Milhiser diverge on their top priority for the office, which is responsible for driver services, corporate record-keeping, organ donation sign-ups and more.

Brady says objective No. 1 is upgrading technology and “outdated inefficient processes” at an office he complains still looks a lot like it did before Y2K.

Milhiser — while still highlighting the need to streamline tech and customer services — says the emphasis is on “rooting out corruption to restore faith in government.”

“If prosecuting this corruption could fix it, it would be taken care of already. It’s still there. The way to root it out is to elect strong leaders statewide,” Milhiser told the Sun-Times.

Milhiser said he’s not making any accusations against White, but he sees corruption as an entrenched statewide Illinois problem.

Former federal prosecutor and current Republican  Illinois secretary of state candidate John Milhiser.

Former federal prosecutor and current Republican Illinois secretary of state candidate John Milhiser.

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Milhiser, a Springfield resident, was previously elected Sangamon County state’s attorney, a post he held for 16 years, before former President Donald Trump appointed him in 2018 as the top federal prosecutor for Illinois’ Central District. Illinois’ Democratic U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin backed his appointment, which was unanimously confirmed by the full U.S. Senate.

Milhiser stepped down in 2021 after President Joe Biden took office, and, inspired by the nationwide teacher shortage, has been teaching high school ever since.

Now, Milhiser is part of a slate of candidates for statewide office recruited by Illinois Republican Party establishment operatives and backed by hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, who has pumped at least $700,000 into Milhiser’s campaign fund.

Ken Griffin, founder & CEO of Citadel.

Ken Griffin, founder & CEO of Citadel.

Economic Club of Chicago/YouTube

Not that the big-time money would affect his duties, according to Milhiser, who said he’s had only a few interactions with Griffin.

“I operate without regard to political parties or political considerations. That’s what this office demands,” Milhiser said.

The former prosecutor argued the next secretary of state shouldn’t be “a statehouse insider or career politician” — a shot at Brady, who has represented his central Illinois House district for almost as long as White has been in office.

The 21-year General Assembly veteran and deputy minority leader retorted that “this office doesn’t prosecute anybody. It’s supposed to provide services.”

Brady told the Sun-Times he’s long aspired to the office, and wasn’t recruited to do so like Milhiser was.

“He’s got the big money. I can’t compete with that. All I can do is outwork him, and I am,” said Brady, who still has a considerable $240,000-plus campaign fund of his own, and has been endorsed by Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin.

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, who is running in the Republican primary for Illinois secretary of state.

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, who is running in the Republican primary for Illinois secretary of state.

Campaign photo

Milhiser’s funding edge hasn’t bought him the upper hand in the race so far, either. A Sun-Times WBEZ poll last week had Brady holding 29% of support among likely Republican primary voters compared to just 13% for Milhiser. More than half of respondents were still undecided, though.

Brady, the former McLean County coroner, noted that during his tenure in the State Capitol, he worked with White’s office on insurance and organ donation legislation.

“Great guy, gotta love Jesse White. But the office has fallen behind the times,” Brady said. “When the office falls behind as far behind as it has, it stymies business in Illinois.”

Secretary of State Jesse White with some of the Jesse White Tumblers before the news conference to endorse J.B. Pritzker for governor in 2017.

Secretary of State Jesse White with some of the Jesse White Tumblers before the news conference to endorse J.B. Pritzker for governor in 2017.

He pointed to the state’s drawn-out and often paper-based car titling services.

“That means the lien holders, the banks, the credit unions — they’re waiting weeks, months. In Florida, that service gets done in hours,” said Brady. He added that he wants to explore the possibility of expanding driver services with the infrastructure in place at 96 community college facilities statewide.

Milhiser offered similar suggestions to evolve the “inside of DMVs, which look very similar to how they did 30 years ago.” He said he wants to improve online search functions and optimize web services for mobile devices.

The Republican nominee will go on to face the winner of the Democratic primary, which is a four-way contest among former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, South Side Ald. David Moore (17th) and Homewood nonprofit executive Sidney Moore.

In the November general election, the nominees will be up against none other than Jesse White — a Libertarian candidate from downstate Centralia who is no relation to the outgoing Democrat. A party leader told the State Journal Register it’s a “total coincidence” that the Libertarian shares a name with the enormously popular six-term secretary of state.

Early voting for the June 28 primary is already underway.

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