SPRINGFIELD — The two candidates trying to return the Illinois secretary of state’s office to Republican control for the first time in 24 years offer voters contrasting pitches on why they’re right for the job.
John Milhiser, 52, emphasizes his background as a state and federal prosecutor and says one of his goals is to restore people’s faith in government and in an office that he acknowledges has a history of corruption under both parties.
Dan Brady, 60, is a funeral director and a state representative from Bloomington who says he will work to improve the nuts and bolts of an office that connects with citizens more than any other statewide agency.
The winner of the June 28 GOP primary will take on whoever emerges from a four-person field in the Democratic primary for the office being vacated by Jesse White, one of the state’s most popular politicians, who is 87 and is retiring at the end of his term in January after 24 years in office.
White took over from George Ryan, who went on to become governor only to be convicted in a wide-ranging corruption case that grew out of a licenses-for-bribes probe during his eight years as secretary of state.
While Democrats have dominated Republicans in statewide elections in recent years, the partisan divide can be less stark in the race for an office that is service-oriented and not ideologically driven, said John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
“The Republican nominee is not going to presumably have to answer questions about abortion rights and other complicated issues but is just going to probably say they manage the office professionally in a way that provides good services for Illinois,” he said.
Milhiser is part of a GOP slate hand-picked by allies of billionaire Chicago hedge fund manager Ken Griffin in an effort to topple the Democrats in the November general election. Last month, Republican candidate for governor Richard Irvin shifted $700,000 from his Griffin-funded campaign to Milhiser’s fund.
In stump speeches, Milhiser echoes other candidates on Griffin’s slate in painting Illinois Democrats as a party of corruption long led by former House Speaker Michael Madigan, now under federal indictment in a bribes-for-jobs scheme involving electricity giant Commonwealth Edison.
“When you look at Illinois, we’re in dire need of ethical leadership statewide. When you look at the history of corruption and career politicians, we need to fix it. And this is the year we’re going to fix it,” Milhiser told a crowd of about three dozen people last month during a meet-and-greet in Eldred, a rural town of about 200 people 80 miles southwest of Springfield.
“Who here thinks with the indictment of former Speaker Madigan, ‘Well, now finally we’ve gotten rid of corruption in Illinois’?” he asked. “No. It’s still there.”
In an interview, Milhiser offered few specifics about his vision for running the office, aside from improving technology and streamlining services for customers.
Instead, he emphasized a need to “restore faith in government,” something he said he learned was needed, in part, from his most recent job teaching at the Lawrence Education Center in Springfield.
“What that has taught me is that students don’t trust government,” Milhiser said. “They think everybody’s corrupt. They read the headlines.”
“We have to fix this problem and this corruption in state government,” he said. “And the secretary of state’s office is where I can have the biggest impact.”
The Democratic primary race has been dominated by accusations of ethical shortcomings between Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia and former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.
“When you look at the Democrats’ side with the two front-runners, Anna and Alexi, who are pointing fingers at each other, arguing who’s less ethical for the position … we don’t need a secretary of state coming in with this cloud of ethical concerns,” Milhiser said.
Milhiser’s wife is a Sangamon County judge and he was the county’s state’s attorney prior to being named U.S. attorney for central Illinois in 2018. He was nominated for the position by then-President Donald Trump.
As U.S. attorney, he oversaw several high-profile cases, including the 2021 indictment of ex-Republican state Sen. Sam McCann for fraud and other charges for his alleged misuse of campaign funds for personal gain. He also oversaw the 2019 conviction of Brendt Christensen, who was subsequently sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping and killing of Yingying Zhang, a visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Milhiser also oversaw the prosecution of a secretary of state employee who was sentenced to 18 months in prison last year for defrauding that office and the Illinois Department of Revenue.
Democratic President Joe Biden did not retain Milhiser as a U.S. attorney. Milhiser then took a job teaching government and English classes to students trying to earn their GEDs at Lawrence.
Earlier he was with the Sangamon County state’s attorney’s office, eventually becoming chief prosecutor and overseeing many drunken driving cases.
“I would travel to high schools all the time to talk to them about safety on a number of different levels,” Milhiser recalled. “But … that office of secretary of state can be so powerful to go out into the community to give the message … whether (it) be distracted driving or drunken driving, or a whole host of issues.”
Before acquiring the $700,000 in Griffin-funded contributions last month, Milhiser had about $274,000 in his campaign fund at the end of the first quarter, just slightly more than Brady’s $243,000, according to state records.
Milhiser said he plans to use the money from Griffin for TV and radio ads, among other things.
Brady, who likes to point out he’s not part of a slate, said secretary of state “is an office I’ve aspired to.”
“This office touches more lives on a daily basis than any other constitutional office,” he said in an interview.
Brady is one of two deputy GOP leaders in the Illinois House of Representatives. He was the McLean County coroner from 1992 to 2000 and is a funeral director and part-owner of a Bloomington funeral home. He touts that experience in noting the secretary of state’s role in promoting organ donation.
Despite acknowledging that the office does have a policing function — it handles driver’s license fraud and identity theft, and is in charge of Capitol security — Brady took a subtle dig at Milhiser, saying, “This office isn’t about prosecuting people.”
“I have an opponent that talks about that. That’s not what this office does. And what your past was is great and honorable, but this is an office about providing service to the public,” Brady said.
As a legislator, Brady had a reputation for being able to reach across the aisle. In the 2000s, Brady worked with a Democratic lawmaker and Jesse White on the state’s “first-person consent law,” which allows organ donors 18 and older to make their own decisions to donate their organs upon their deaths, preventing their families from overruling their wishes.
In 2007, Brady supported legislation, sponsored by then-Democratic state Rep. Eddie Acevedo, to give special driving certificates to undocumented immigrants. The proposal narrowly passed in the House in a 60-54 vote but ultimately failed.
It wasn’t until 2013 when the General Assembly passed a measure, which Brady voted for, that was later signed into law by and then-Gov. Pat Quinn, to grant temporary visitor driver’s licenses to immigrants without documentation.
Republicans have traditionally favored more stringent immigration policies, but Brady was one of several Republicans who joined Democrats in supporting the measure when it passed in 2013. “At least temporarily while they’re here, how do we train those individuals and possess some temporary licenses where we don’t put others in danger?” he said.
While praising White, Brady said the secretary of state’s office needs better computer systems and a greater focus on cybersecurity to more effectively prevent driver’s license or state ID data theft.
With the secretary of state being Illinois’ official librarian, Brady has also talked about developing a better system for broadband Internet connectivity in libraries throughout the state, especially those in rural areas. He’s also called for more mobile driver’s services for senior citizens.
Brady said he doesn’t think Griffin’s largesse will put Milhiser over the top with voters.
“I don’t believe Republican voters embrace the concept of a slate and embrace the concept of, ‘We have the most money and we think we know what’s best,’“ he said. “It just rubs people the wrong way.”
The secretary of state’s office in Illinois doesn’t have an active role in elections, but Brady thinks it could do some things to preserve election integrity.
Asked about unsupported claims believed by many Republicans that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, Brady said he doesn’t know that to be the case, while saying “there is certainly malfeasance” in the election process.
He said driver’s license photos could be used to verify the identities of voters, rather than just relying on signatures. Several states, including Indiana and Wisconsin, require photo IDs to vote.
Asked the same question, Milhiser said he would only speak for the Central District of Illinois, which he oversaw as U.S. attorney, where he did not see any evidence of widespread fraud that would overturn the election.
“Illinois is different than a lot of states where the secretary of state is not the election official. That is dispersed amongst 102 county clerks in Illinois. So, as secretary of state, we’ll support them in whatever way we need to to make sure that we have free and fair elections and everybody’s able to vote,” he said.