SPRINGFIELD — For the first time in a quarter century, Illinois voters won’t be seeing the name Jesse White on the ballot for secretary of state this November.
Instead, voters will choose from Chicago Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, and Libertarian Jon Stewart from Deerfield.
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Despite 88-year-old White announcing in 2019 that he wasn’t running again, some voters across the state may still be surprised not to see him on the ballot. He had been a regular favorite, winning by large margins, including two-thirds of the vote in 2018.
“This is the first time in a long time where it’s an open seat,” Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said. “[Replacing White] is a daunting task.”
White is stepping down after six terms as secretary of state, the longest anyone has served in that office in Illinois history. He is endorsing his fellow Democrat, Giannoulias, who served a term as Illinois state treasurer from 2007 to 2011.
Giannoulias left electoral politics after he narrowly lost a bid for the U.S. Senate to Republican Mark Kirk by 59,220 votes.
Giannoulias said it was his three young daughters who inspired him to get back into Illinois politics.
“Seeing what’s happened to our country, to our democracy, to our planet…We need people to step up and lead,” Giannoulias said. “I know it sounds cheesy and idealistic, but the only reason I’m running is because I want to help people in any way I can.”
He said the top complaint he’s heard from people out on the campaign trail is how long the wait lines at the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles are.
He’s proposing a “skip the line” plan, an online appointment booking system, as well as an app for secretary of state services, which would allow users to upload documents and receive reminders on upcoming renewals.
In addition, Giannoulias wants to create digital driver’s licenses to make it more convenient for residents to update their information remotely and avoid an in-person visit.
“We can cut foot traffic at our DMVs by 50 to 75%, which again, eliminates wait times and eliminates the time tax that people are paying,” Giannoulias said.
Giannoulias said modernizing the office is a top priority, but when asked what set him apart from his opponent, he brought up abortion rights. If elected, Giannoulias said he would continue to advocate for abortion access in Illinois.
“There’s a fundamental difference between myself and my opponent,” Giannoulias said. “I think that the Dobbs decision was dangerous and turned back the clock in a bad way.”
Republicans look to win back the office
His Republican opponent, Dan Brady, hasn’t been talking about abortion on the campaign trail. He voted against the Reproductive Health Act in 2019.
Brady is a veteran lawmaker, serving as a state representative since 2001 and deputy minority leader since 2017. He was also the McLean County coroner in the 1990s.
Brady says that working in the legislature for so many years has taught him how to work with the Democratic majority to pass bills, and he touted his working relationship with Jesse White.
“This is an individual I have worked with on legislation, human organ and tissue donation in particular, distracted driving, driving, defensive driving for seniors,” Brady said of the politically popular White. “So I have a good rapport with the secretary.”
Brady did get the endorsement of former Republican governor — and former secretary of state — Jim Edgar. During a press conference last month, Edgar said Brady “has respect on both sides of the aisle.”
Similar to his Democratic opponent, Brady also has his own ideas for trying to reduce foot traffic to the DMV.
He’s proposed converting libraries and community college spaces into hubs for some remote services, like driver’s license and sticker renewals.
“We can replace some of the older, outdated facilities versus putting good taxpayer money after bad facilities that we just simply need to renew,” Brady said. “Community colleges might help us be able to do that in a way that taxpayers are already paying for.”
And to cut down on wait time, Brady also said he wants to make sure each DMV facility is fully staffed.
“Any senator or representative would tell you probably the largest office they deal with for constituent services is a secretary of state’s office, where the greatest red tape may occur, where the greatest logjams could occur,” Brady said.
Before White held the office for 24 years, Redfield said the secretary of state position was seen as a political stepping stone to higher statewide positions like governor. He said time will tell if White’s replacement will use the office as a springboard for more political power down the line.
“It does give you a position of authority, name recognition, chance to make a record and then create options in the future,” Redfield said. “I think it’s reasonable that both Brady and Giannoulias probably do have progressive ambitions.”
Mawa Iqbal covers the Illinois statehouse for WBEZ. Follow her @mawa_iqbal.