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Rutherford tries to keep campaign on course

SPRINGFIELD — State Treasurer Dan Rutherford loves competitive sailing and has been a crew member several times during Chicago-to-Mackinaw Island races on Lake Michigan.

But if Rutherford’s Republican campaign for governor is metaphorically like one of the racing boats that he has turned into a summertime hobby, it’s dangerously close to being swamped heading into the March 18 primary.

The first-term treasurer announced his gubernatorial bid in June and, as the only GOP statewide officeholder to make a run, immediately was positioned to be a top-tier candidate.

In raw votes, Rutherford, in his bid for treasurer, had outpolled Gov. Pat Quinn statewide in 2010. Rutherford closed out 2013 with a respectable $1.39 million in his campaign fund. And he had been polling solidly in second place in the four-way GOP gubernatorial field behind private-equity investor Bruce Rauner.

But in early February, Rutherford’s campaign began taking on water because of a federal lawsuit from a former staffer, who alleged Rutherford made improper sexual advances toward him and pressured his staffers to do campaign work.

Rutherford forcefully denied those allegations, initially laying blame for the tempest with Rauner but later backing off. The treasurer also launched an internal investigation into staffer Edmund Michalowski’s complaint and vowed to make it public, but Rutherford pulled back once Michalowski sued.

The allegations came on top of reports about Rutherford’s repeated travels as treasurer, including numerous trips abroad and dozens of domestic trips in and out of the state where he roomed with an office underling in hotels.

Rutherford has attempted to quell the controversy by dealing with it head-on.

“I think people see through this what it is,” Rutherford said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “I mean, here’s someone who’s made allegations, purportedly of something years and years ago, with no substantiation to it, and it comes up just a few weeks before an election. It’s very political, and this is a very blood-sport state.”

The controversy has put an uncomfortable spotlight on Rutherford’s personal life as a single man, leading one TV interviewer in early February to ask him about his sexual orientation. In that WLS-Ch.7 interview, Rutherford curtly denied he is gay, which he previously told the Windy City Times and repeated to the Sun-Times. “No. Next question,” he said.

Gov. Pat Quinn, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Secretary of State Jesse White, who like Rutherford are single, have generally not been subjected to questions about their personal lives.

Rutherford, who told the Sun-Times he regards any question about his sexual orientation as “inappropriate,” steered clear of addressing the general fairness of him facing personal scrutiny when fellow statewide officeholders have not.

“I’m not going to go out and speculate on other people or what should be done or not with them,” Rutherford said. “That’s your business.”

The meltdown has put Rutherford in a defensive mode, slowing his campaign fundraising to a trickle and causing him to try to shelter his immediate family from the fallout. “I’m almost afraid to answer anything,” said his mother, Carol Rutherford, when contacted by the Sun-Times to talk about his youth and her son’s early interest in politics. She declined to respond to questions, and a campaign spokesman later made an unusual request of the Sun-Times to make no further contact with Rutherford’s family.

The treasurer, 58, grew up in downstate Pontiac and worked in his family’s pizza restaurant through middle school and high school. He attended Illinois State University, where he was student body president, and worked road construction during the summer to help graduate debt-free.

Rutherford dabbled in politics early, volunteering for Ronald Reagan’s winning 1980 presidential bid and working in former Gov. James Thompson’s administration.

Rutherford’s legislative career began in the Illinois House in 1993, where he remained until moving to the state Senate in 2003. He became treasurer in 2011.

In the House, Rutherford voted to impose Cook County property tax caps, limit damage awards in lawsuits, require that parents be notified before their minor children obtain abortions and allow gun owners to carry their weapons in public places.

As a state senator, he voted against raising the minimum wage, casino expansion, legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and prohibiting smoking in bars, restaurants and other public areas. Rutherford voted in favor of school-voucher legislation that would have applied to Chicago, and he was the lone Senate Republican to vote for civil unions in 2010.

As treasurer, Rutherford said he has increased the amount of unclaimed assets returned to their rightful owners to $369 million during his first three years in office, and investment in the college-savings programs his office administers has jumped to a record $6 billion.

Two polls released in the past week — one from We Ask America and the other from rival Bill Brady’s pollster — have Rutherford in last place, a drop that coincides with the allegations brought against him. Despite that plunge, he holds out hope voters will see through the allegations against him and that his gubernatorial goals somehow stay afloat.

“Whether one is treated fairly or not is how one defines it,” Rutherford said. “All I know is I’m in this race for governor, and I intend to keep standing strong.”

ABOUT RUTHERFORD

  • Age: 58
  • Hometown: Pontiac
  • Marital status: Single
  • Religious affiliation: Methodist
  • Describe your last charitable contribution: It was probably to either Ducks Unlimited or Pheasants Forever, and it was probably $25 or 100.
  • How much personal credit card debt do you carry? Zero. I pay it off every month.
  • Cubs, Sox, Cardinals or someone else? Cubs.
  • Describe your last vacation: It was to Australia. And it was to visit my nephew who was going to school there. It was a couple of years ago.
  • What was your nickname as a kid? In high school, it was Vince. People were doing it as a joke because Vince was a competitor to my mom and dad’s restaurant.
  • What was last thing bought on eBay? Oh my gosh. I don’t even remember being on eBay. I don’t know if I ever bought anything on eBay.
  • What past Illinois governor do you most admire? There are a number of them. Probably Jim Thompson because I knew him. I knew him and he treated people well.”
  • When was the first time you tried marijuana: God. Probably, in early college.
  • Do you mow your own yard? No. My nephew does.
  • Who’s your favorite “Saturday Night Live” performer? I don’t watch “Saturday Night Live.”
  • Describe the thing for which you got into the most trouble as a kid: It had to be something around the house, doing something wrong. I don’t remember what it was.
  • Who’s your favorite musical performer? I’d have to go back to a collection of many. Someone like a Phil Collins, the Doors, Clapton, Lynryd Skynryd. Kind of a whole eclectic group like that.
  • How often do you get to the gym? Not to the gym. But I do try to exercise at home. I jog on a treadmill. I try each morning when I’m home. Obviously, my schedule varies.
  • Describe your first date: We probably went out to pizza. It would have been in high school.
  • What thing are you best known for cooking: Some kind of soup, stew or casserole.