Baggage check: Democratic secretary of state candidates haggle over who faces the most ethical questions

Ald. David Moore (17th), who has limited campaign coffers, tried to paint himself as the candidate without any ethical problems — as former state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and Chicago city clerk Anna Valencia traded barbs in the heated Democratic race to succeed Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

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Former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Ald. David Moore (17th) and Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia participate in a debate at the Union League Club.

Former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, left to right, Ald. David Moore (17th) and Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, all Democratic candidates for Illinois secretary of state, participate in a debate at the Union League Club Thursday afternoon.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

City Clerk Anna Valencia denied she used her position to help her lobbyist husband secure business opportunities — while former state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias defended his family’s failed bank on Thursday after the two squared off in a forum of Democratic candidates for Illinois secretary of state.

Ald. David Moore (17th), who has limited campaign coffers, tried to paint himself as the candidate without any ethical problems — as Giannoulias and Valencia traded barbs in the heated Democratic race to succeed Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

Valencia was pressed about her husband Reyahd Kazmi’s business dealings after the Union League Club of Chicago forum. She argued that she and her husband have separate careers, and she is her own “independent person.”

Kazmi is a lobbyist who is a consultant for IGNITE Cities,which sought a contract with the Illinois Medical District, according to downstate television station WCIA.

Valencia also denied being served with a subpoena as part of a New Orleans City Council investigation into IGNITE Cities. She said the city of New Orleans emailed her “one time” to ask about the CityKey card. She said her policy director and chief of staff also met with a New Orleans city official.

Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, Democratic candidate for Illinois secretary of state, speaks during a debate at the Union League Club.

Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, Democratic candidate for Illinois secretary of state, speaks during a debate at the Union League Club on Thursday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The issues were first brought into the spotlight by Giannoulias’ campaign, which obtained hundreds of emails sent to or regarding Kazmi from Valencia’s city account. And Valencia has been on defense since February, arguing it’s a “sexist implication” to say her husband dictates her decisions.

“I’m not the first woman running for office that has to say my husband doesn’t speak for me. I am my own person, my own woman. Period,” Valencia said. “And I decided that if my husband and I — if I win this race, my husband will have, and I, a strong firewall and will not do business with anyone in the state of Illinois.”

In defending herself, Valencia, who was elected city clerk in 2016, has repeatedly talked about “growing pains.”

“Do you want to talk about growing pains? There are growing pains being a city clerk,” Valencia said. “I wish I would have been more careful with my personal and professional emails. Period. Those are growing pains I had to learn out in the public, and now they’re on negative TV ads.”

Stepping off the stage, Valencia added, “These are the obstacles women face when running for office.”

The secretary of state’s office oversees lobbyists, including statements of economic interest. And Giannoulias told reporters “people are sick and tired of lobbyists, the cozy relationship between lobbyists and elected officials.” But Giannoulias also insisted the campaign contributions he has accepted from lobbyists pose no conflict.

Former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Democratic candidate for Illinois secretary of state, speaks during a debate Thursday.

Former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Democratic candidate for Illinois secretary of state, speaks during a debate Thursday at the Union League Club.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“Because, again, if you look at our ethics package — I’m not trying to be cute here. An elected official should not be allowed to lobby a different branch of government,” Giannoulias said. “I didn’t say they [elected officials] should not take money from lobbyists. I’m saying that they should not lobby other kinds of government.”

Giannoulias was also asked why he believes he’s the best candidate to defeat a Republican in the November election, potentially one backed by billionaire Ken Griffin, as Giannoulias carries the same baggage that was brought up during his unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate campaign against Republican Mark Kirk.

Valencia has repeatedly brought up loans that were given to people allegedly linked to organized crime when Giannoulias served as a senior loan officer. The bank failed in 2010.

Giannoulias touted his experience in a statewide run and the ability to raise money and get support from organized labor, elected officials and Democratic organizations as reasons why he’s the strongest pick.

“Republicans are going to use ethics and scandal and corruption to beat Democrats over the head in November,” saying he’s proud of his ethical track record of never having “a whiff of pay-to-play politics or even anything remotely unethical in my time as state treasurer.”

Of his family’s bank, Giannoulias said he’s “proud of the community bank” that “helped tens of thousands of people achieve the American Dream,” — the same way he characterized the bank during his 2010 run.

“Unfortunately, like a record number of banks during the Great Recession, it didn’t make it through, especially for real estate lenders,” Giannoulias said. “That was very difficult for me. It was difficult for my family.”

Ald. David Moore (17th), Democratic candidate for Illinois secretary of state, speaks during a debate at the Union League Club.

Ald. David Moore (17th), Democratic candidate for Illinois secretary of state, speaks during a debate at the Union League Club.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ethics aside, the three — on stage — offered differing ways to modernize the office.

Moore said there should be digital license plates which could, in part, help police catch carjackers by displaying the word “stolen” once a car is reported as carjacked.

Valencia wants to create an online portal for Illinois residents to renew a driver’s license or register a business. And Giannoulias wants a “skip-a-line” program so that some of the state’s most vulnerable residents can make appointments online and spare long in-person waits.

The candidates also disagreed on the need for a motorcycle helmet law, a question offered up by an audience member. Valencia and Giannoulias said they’d support a required helmet, but Moore said, “adults should have a choice.”

During the forum, Moore joked that he helped former president Barack Obama become president — by supporting his failed 2000 primary run for U.S. Congress against U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush.

“He only won three precincts, not even his own. Guess what ward he won? David Moore’s in the 17th. So if it wasn’t for David Moore, Barack Obama wouldn’t be president,” Moore said to laughs.

The South Side alderman also said he wouldn’t use the secretary of state position to climb to higher office.

“I’m the only one in the race that has said emphatically, this is my last stop,” Moore said. “I am not looking to be the next senator, the next governor. I’m just looking to serve the residents of Illinois and that becomes the responsibility of the Secretary of State, so that we can use our voice to press on those issues.”

Editor’s note: The story has been corrected to accurately describe the role of IGNITE Cities, according to a report from downstate television station WCIA.

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