Jim Ryan, two-term Illinois attorney general, former GOP governor nominee, dead at 76

In 2002, Mr. Ryan passed up a possible third term as attorney general and ran for governor, losing to Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

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Republican gubernatorial candidate for Illinois attorney general Jim Ryan waves to the crowd while walking through the 2001 Illinois State Fair.

Republican gubernatorial candidate for Illinois attorney general Jim Ryan waves to the crowd while walking through the 2001 Illinois State Fair.

Seth Perlman/AP

When then-Gov. Jim Thompson tried to recruit Jim Ryan to run for Illinois attorney general in 1985 just a year after Mr. Ryan had been elected DuPage County state’s attorney, Mr. Ryan said no, feeling he wasn’t ready yet. The cautious decision set Mr. Ryan apart in a political landscape of often brash and ambitious personalities.

James E. Ryan, a two-term Illinois attorney general from 1995-2003 who twice ran unsuccessfully for governor, died Sunday “after several lengthy illnesses,” according to a family statement published in the DuPage Policy Journal. He was 76. 

“Former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan passed away peacefully at home on June 12, 2022, at the age of 76 after several lengthy illnesses,” according to the published statement.

“Ryan’s considerable accomplishments as a public official and earlier as a Golden Gloves boxing champion were dwarfed by the inspirational power of his perseverance and strength through faith in the midst of a string of devastating personal tragedies and challenges,” according to the statement.

Current Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul paid tribute to Mr. Ryan on Sunday evening.

“Jim Ryan dedicated much of his career to public safety, first as DuPage County state’s attorney and then as Illinois Attorney General, and I strive to follow his example,” Raoul said in a statement. “Jim’s leadership as Attorney General and commitment to protecting all residents of Illinois is something that I have done my best to mirror since taking office.”

Mr. Ryan was a popular fresh face in Republican politics when he was encouraged to leave his law firm, Ryan & Darrah, and run for DuPage County state’s attorney in 1984. He beat incumbent Republican Michael Fitzsimmons by 13,000 votes in the Republican primary election and coasted to victory in the November general election. 

Mr. Ryan, an Elmhurst resident, remained DuPage County state’s attorney from 1984 to 1994, when he successfully ran for attorney general.

In 2002, Mr. Ryan passed up a possible third term as attorney general and ran for governor, losing to Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

Mr. Ryan ran for governor again in 2010, but lost in a six-way Republican primary to state Sen. Bill Brady. His later political career was encumbered by other prominent Illinois politicians with the last name of Ryan who weighed down the name with negative political baggage.

A candidate named Jack Ryan had quit the 2004 Senate race after revelations that he had visited sex clubs with his then-wife. Former Gov. George Ryan was convicted on federal charges in 2006, and a 2009 poll showed 19% of the respondents thought Jim Ryan was the former governor. Another candidate, former Arlington Heights mayor James T. Ryan, had dropped out of the 1986 Illinois attorney general race over allegations he had violent outbursts.

Mr. Ryan also battled health issues. He was diagnosed in 1996 with Stage 2 non-Hodgkin lymphoma and began chemotherapy. The disease returned in 2002 when he was the Republican nominee for governor.

Throughout his career, Mr. Ryan was respected as a consensus builder who brought stakeholders to the table. Though some complained he ruled by committee and acted slowly — Illinois under Ryan was just the 17th state to join a 1990s lawsuit to recover damages from the tobacco industry — his supporters called him deliberative and thoughtful.

In 1997, then-Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal wrote Mr. Ryan had raised the profile of the attorney general’s office, in part by going after toxic dumpers, polluters, online fraud and gangs. As attorney general, Mr. Ryan also helped create the Illinois Violence Prevention Initiative.

But Mr. Ryan was criticized for his handling as state’s attorney of the 1983 murder case of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville, which he had inherited from Fitzsimmons. In that case, three men were wrongfully charged and, on Mr. Ryan’s watch, two — Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez — were sentenced to death. After the Cruz’s and Hernandez’s convictions were overturned, Mr. Ryan’s office retried them. All three men ultimately were freed, but Cruz and Hernandez did not leave prison until after Mr. Ryan had left the office.

Critics argued Mr. Ryan should have dropped the charges as it became increasingly clear that another man, Brian Dugan, had committed the crime while acting alone. Dugan eventually pleaded guilty to the murder and is serving a life term. In 2009, Mr. Ryan apologized for “failing to achieve a just outcome” in the case.

Mr. Ryan was born in Chicago. Later, his father Edward Ryan, a builder of modest homes, moved the family to DuPage County. As a teenager, Mr. Ryan was a Golden Gloves boxer in West Side gyms.

He attended St. Procopius Academy, now named Benet Academy, and then St. Procopius College, now named Benedictine University, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in political science in 1968. He obtained his law degree in 1971 from Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Starting in 1976, Mr. Ryan was an assistant DuPage County state’s attorney, and later moved up to the job as first assistant state’s attorney. He then went into private practice with John Darrah, later a federal judge, for eight years before leaving to run for state’s attorney.

After losing the 2002 gubernatorial race, Mr. Ryan returned to Benedictine University in west suburban Lisle, where he taught political science and criminal justice courses. He joined the Chicago office of Gardner, Carton & Douglas in 2003 and later was of counsel at the Naperville law firm, Jim Ryan & Associates.

In 2005, Mr. Ryan established the Center for Civic Leadership at Benedictine University in partnership with the university’s board of trustees and the political science faculty.

“From the time I met him until his death, Jimmy always was striving to do the right thing and to help people,” said his wife, Marie, in the family statement. “That was who he was, and he was very successful at it.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Ryan is survived by four of his six children, John (Stacie) Ryan, Jim (Heather) Ryan, Matthew (Melissa) Ryan and Amy Ryan. “His youngest daughter, Anne Marie, died at age 12 in 1997 of an undiagnosed brain tumor, and Patrick, 24, died in 2007,” according to the family statement.

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