SPRINGFIELD-Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White Thursday announced he intends to seek a historic fifth term in office, insisting he takes his job “seriously” and reversing course from an earlier pledge that his current term would be his last.
Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White announces plans to seek a historic fifth term during a labor rally in Springfield. | Dave McKinney/Sun-Times
White, 79, declared his re-election bid during stops in Chicago and Springfield, a decision he said occurred after being “inundated with requests, emails and telephone calls from my constituents” to run again.
“They said they did not want to go back to the old days, or the days of the past. So I was convinced that maybe I should continue on in this effort. So I decided, after a few sleepless nights, that I should run for re-election,” White told supporters gathered at the Illinois AFL-CIO headquarters in Springfield.
In 2009, as White was eying a fourth term, he vowed that this would be his last stint as secretary of state and that he would do volunteer work after his current term ends in January 2015.
“I take this job seriously,” he said. “I believe if there’s a mission before you, you see it from its beginning to its conclusion.”
In making a case for fifth term, White cited his removal of a “cloud of corruption” from an office once held by former Gov. George Ryan. White also outlined his work in changing state law so that teen drivers face more rigorous licensing standards, texting is banned while driving, cell-phone use is prohibited in construction and school zones, and convicted drunk drivers face broader ignition-interlock requirements.
White, who would be 84 at the conclusion of a fifth term, said his age isn’t a hindrance and said he is as vigorous as members of his Jesse White Tumblers troupe.
“Someone was concerned about my age. Don’t worry about my age. I’m just as youthful as the tumblers that I have in my program because I still do the headstand,” he said.
Since Illinois became a state in 1818, only one other secretary of state has served four terms: Republican James A. Rose. From Downstate Pope County, Rose was in office between 1897 and 1912, when he died before the completion of his term.
No Democrats have lined up to challenge White in a primary, nor are there any Republicans who have indicated an interest in taking on one of Illinois’ most popular statewide officeholders.
During his last three campaigns, White has fended off his GOP challengers by 30 percentage points or more. His closest race for secretary of state was his first, when in 1998 he defeated Republican Al Salvi by 12 percentage points.
On other issues Thursday, White said he does not intend to endorse either Gov. Pat Quinn or rival William Daley in next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.
“It’s always kind of tough for you to support one of two friends. So they’re my friends, and I’m going to wait and support the person who’s successful in clearing the primary election,” he said.
But White did praise Quinn for the work he has in turning the governor’s office around since imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s calamitous impeachment and ouster in 2009.
“He inherited a nightmare, and he’s done quite well based on what he inherited, and I wish him well,” White said of Quinn. “I would not want his job. There are three jobs I wouldn’t want to embark upon: the mayor of the city of Chicago, the governor of the state of Illinois or the president of the United States. As they would say in my Italian neighborhood, forget about it.”
White also addressed a political blemish on his record during his fourth term: his support of state Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago), who is under federal indictment for bribery, was expelled from the House last year but won election anyway despite his expulsion and the criminal charges against him.
Smith, a one-time employee in White’s office, is scheduled to go on trial next month for allegedly accepting a $7,000 cash bribe from an undercover FBI informant, who purportedly paid the West Side lawmaker for help in arranging a state grant.
“You never know what an individual is going to do. I’ve known him for a long period of time, and I thought he was a person of good character. When we promoted [former state Sen.] Annazette Collins from state representative to state senator, there was a vacancy, and so we decided to appoint Derrick Smith, thinking he was one of the best and brightest, one of the sharpest knives in the drawer,” White said. “As it turned out, he was not …the honorable person we thought he would be. And as it turned out, we ended up with egg on our face.”
After supporting Smith in the 2012 primary, White pulled his support in that year’s general election, endorsing independent Lance Tyson, who wound up losing to Smith.
“I’m saddened by the fact it happened, but people of the state of Illinois will have another chance to right that wrong, and they can do that in the primary election,” White said.
And on one other issue, term limits, White said he is opposed to a bid by Republican gubernatorial contender Bruce Rauner to put a constitutional ballot question before voters to impose term limits on state lawmakers, shrink the state Legislature and boost the threshold needed to override a governor’s veto.
“I think the voters should make the determination as to what your term should be,” White said, adding, “I think if you’re doing a good enough job, you should stay there.”