Illinois’ GOP newcomers say lack of experience asset in 2014

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A suburban accountant and retired downstate Marine say their lack of political experience is actually a big asset in the race to unseat two of Illinois’ most prominent and longest-serving Democratic constitutional officers: Secretary of State Jesse White and Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Hoping to tap into an anti-incumbent mood come November, accountant and tax attorney Michael Webster hopes to convince voters that not being a “career politician” and focusing on business issues will help him oust White, who is Illinois’ longest-serving secretary of state with four terms. Meanwhile, Paul Schimpf, a prosecutor and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, insists he’s not beholden to special interests and would focus more on anti-corruption efforts than consumer advocacy like Madigan, a three-term attorney general who’s earned praise nationwide for going after big banks and for-profit colleges over claims of fraudulent practices.

The themes in the down-ballot races, detailed in Associated Press candidate questionnaires and interviews, have trickled down from the state’s highly watched governor’s race where Republican Bruce Rauner, a venture capitalist making his first bid for public office, is trying to keep Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn from winning a second full term.

Webster and Schimpf recognized the tough road ahead: They don’t have established relationships with Illinois’ top leaders, nor name recognition or fundraising power. Schimpf had just $8,000 cash on hand compared to Madigan’s $4.8 million as of June 30, the most recent quarter for which candidates filed reports. Webster had $13,000 cash on hand compared to White’s $700,000

“I am a longshot. It is very difficult to beat an incumbent,” Webster, who lives in an unincorporated area near Burr Ridge, told the AP. “But if you were going to run against an incumbent in Illinois, this is the year to do it. I want to take on the most popular politician in the state of Illinois.”

In Illinois, the secretary of state’s office oversees driver licensing and maintains state records.

Webster, 54, said Illinois’ biggest three issues are “jobs, jobs and jobs” and wants to make the office a “business ally,” hoping to help Illinois keep companies in the state, according to his AP candidate questionnaire.

White, 80, wrote that the three biggest issues are the state budget, the underfunded pension system and jobs. Considered a party elder, White has focused on driver safety, particularly drunk driving and distracted driving. Outside the office, the Chicago resident has also built decades of good will with the Jesse White Tumbling Team for children who live in housing projects.

In his AP questionnaire, he cited efforts to improve hiring and ethics over the years.

“We eliminated the ‘culture of corruption’ and thoroughly investigate any allegation of wrongdoing,” he wrote.

The theme of fighting corruption has emerged in the attorney general race, too.

Schimpf, 43, claimed in his questionnaire that Illinois has “become more corrupt and dysfunctional since Lisa Madigan took office,” citing two consecutive governors — George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich — sent to prison.

Madigan noted she has taken action to “protect all Illinoisans from financial fraud and scams,” and even Schimpf acknowledged Madigan’s long advocacy record. Her questionnaire responses about accomplishments, goals and views on social issues ran 11 pages to the Waterloo resident’s six.

The Chicago Democrat easily won her last two elections and amped up fundraising last year, leading many to believe she’d run for governor. But she opted out, saying she couldn’t run as long has her father, Michael Madigan, was Illinois House speaker.

The younger Madigan, 48, has built a national profile. In her AP questionnaire, she says she “achieved unprecedented recoveries,” which includes a 2012 settlement she helped negotiate with the nation’s largest mortgage lenders over fraudulent practices after the housing bubble burst — $1 billion for Illinois alone. Recently, her office has investigated for-profit colleges that students alleged left them unqualified for jobs.

“I have an established record of accomplishments,” she said in the questionnaire.

But Schimpf said having a long political record isn’t always a good thing. He said he wasn’t recruited by GOP leaders and started his grass-roots campaign with family. He’s even campaigned at train stops with his mother-in-law.

“Even though I hung up my uniform, I’m still a Marine,” Schimpf told the AP. “The only thing a Marine likes better than a challenge is a bigger challenge.”

SOPHIA TAREEN, Associated Press

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