Standing amid a few dozen supporters inside an Italian restaurant in Downers Grove on a recent Thursday night, Dan Rutherford drew an analogy to explain the setbacks in his bid for governor.
"Do you all know what a manatee is?" asked Rutherford, an avid scuba diver. "A manatee is this nice creature out there in the water not hurting nobody, kind of eating the grass and then all of a sudden this motorboat just goes over and just slashes, just rips your back. And the sea cow is like, what was that all about?"
But the slashes, Rutherford said, just toughen up the manatee's hide.
"I'm going to betcha that motorboat may run across the back a couple, three or four more times, and it's going to hurt," he said. "But I'm going to scar over and be tougher because of it."
If it's an unusual comparison, well, it's been an odd campaign for Rutherford. The 58-year-old from central Illinois is finally running for the job he's been aiming for during a carefully constructed political career that has taken him from president of his high school freshman class to both chambers of the General Assembly to statewide office.
For months, Rutherford positioned himself as the leading alternative to Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner, who has saturated the airwaves with advertisements and piled up a vast money advantage.
But within a matter of weeks, Rutherford has gone from touting his electability to assuring supporters he won't drop out of the race.
A former top aide in the treasurer's office, Edmund Michalowski, filed a federal lawsuit last month accusing Rutherford of sexually harassing him and demanding that he do campaign work at taxpayer expense.
Rutherford repeatedly has denied the allegations and argued that they are nothing more than a political hit piece orchestrated by Rauner — an accusation Rauner says is ridiculous. Still, Rutherford's ability to sell himself in the four-way race has been overshadowed by the pall of the controversy.
At the same time, Rutherford's practice of rooming with a different, lower-level subordinate in his office has raised questions about his judgment as a chief executive. Rutherford has defended the practice as a cost-cutting move that he typically only does while on political trips, not on taxpayer business.
Rutherford, who once boasted that he was the only one who could challenge Rauner, abruptly dropped his planned TV advertising blitz in the face of frenzy. His campaign tried to play down the move — saying it wanted to further evaluate which media markets are worth investing in — but it only highlighted his troubles.
"I'm not getting out of this race for governor. I'm going all the way," Rutherford told supporters in Downers Grove. "If we said, 'I quit,' the bad guys win."
The controversies have created an us-versus-them dynamic within the close-knit Rutherford campaign, which employs just a handful of workers, including his family, and relies on a small core of volunteers.
"It just makes his supporters more intent on seeing him sitting in that governor's chair," said supporter Mary Pierceall, 56, of Aurora. "So we can all say, 'I told you so.'"
His sister and brother-in-law make campaign appearances, recently joining Rutherford at a meet-and-greet to offer their personal stories about why voters should support him. His mom, Carol, appears with him, stuffs envelopes with appeals for contributions and routinely calls to thank donors. All three family members are on his political payroll.
Rutherford said the controversy has taken a toll on his mother. It's been hard on his hometown supporters, too.
"Everybody feels very badly for Dan," said John McGlasson, Republican chairman in Livingston County. "He's been working hard his whole life, and for these type of charges to come up a few weeks before the primary, everybody thinks it's just very unfair and very unfortunate."
Getting his break
Rutherford grew up in Pontiac, a town of about 12,000 in north central Illinois known for its maximum-security prison. He worked at his parents' restaurant, Carol's Pizza Pan, where he said he was washing dishes at age 8 by standing on wooden soda trays to reach the sink.
"You could tell he was a hardworking kid," said political friend Mike Burke, who grew up in Pontiac and is now the Livingston County coroner.