State Treasurer Dan Rutherford kicked off a campaign for the 2014 Republican governor nomination Sunday, touting himself as the only statewide officeholder among the GOP field.
"It's hard to win statewide as a Republican, but I can tell you what, I'm positive that we can do it again," Rutherford told supporters at Harry Caray's in Chicago as he began a three-day tour of Illinois.
Rutherford, 58, was a state lawmaker for nearly two decades before he was elected treasurer in 2010. The post is a jumping-off point for politicians with ambitions for higher office, and Rutherford had made no secret that he was eyeing the governorship.
Still, joining the race is a gamble: If Rutherford loses, he'll be out of elected office. It's expected to be a crowded Republican field. State Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington would like another try after his narrow loss to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in 2010. State Sen. Kirk Dillard and businessman Bruce Rauner also are interested.
The Democratic side features Quinn trying for a second full term. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is weighing a primary challenge. If she doesn't run, William Daley, a former U.S. commerce secretary and White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, might make the race.
Rutherford's first year as treasurer was bumpy. He came under fire for a botched promotion of the Bright Start college savings program and for mailers that were sent out with recipients' Social Security numbers printed on the outside of the envelopes. He found himself on the defensive after glossy brochures about the state's debt problems started landing in the mailboxes of political donors. It was just a coincidence, he said.
He bragged about cutting spending — he slashed the number of taxpayer-funded phone lines and cars, for example — but routinely made use of the state plane for his travel between Chicago, Springfield and other cities. The flights were necessary because he lives in central Illinois, near his hometown of Pontiac, and must travel between several offices, he said.
The son of pizza shop owners, Rutherford said he worked his way through college and graduated without debt. After he was elected to the Illinois House in 1993, Rutherford kept a private sector job with ServiceMaster, which operates brands like Terminix and TruGreen.
"I learned to work with people," he said. "I worked with people of different religions, different skin colors, different customs and different cultures."
The dual themes — hard work and an embrace of diversity — were apparent throughout the campaign event.
In introducing Rutherford, Steve Kim, who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2010, said "no one" would work harder as governor.
Kim joked that a friend once asked if Rutherford was Korean because "he's on Korean radio all the time." As Kim spoke, Rutherford, who is single and has no children, stood behind the lectern, flanked by relatives and a multicultural array of friends.
"You go to Chinatown and you're going to think he's a movie star," Kim said. "His picture is in every bank, it's in every beauty salon, it's in every restaurant."
Rutherford, who served as Mitt Romney's Illinois chairman during last year's presidential campaign, said Sunday that he planned to focus his campaign on fiscal issues and scolded his party for failing to broaden its tent.
"I think that the idea of being with one 80 percent of the time on the issues is fine," Rutherford said, responding to a question about the ousting of Pat Brady from his GOP leadership role because of his support for gay marriage. "You don't have to be with someone 100 percent of the time to be a good Republican. I understand that there are people that have a different position on the social issues than some. And they are still good Republicans."
Rutherford was the lone Senate Republican to vote for the state's civil union law in 2010, but he opposed the gay marriage bill that languished in the House this year. The treasurer said he thought the bill should have been called for a vote. Asked later if he had changed his position on gay marriage, Rutherford ignored the question.
The "biggest disappointment" of the last session, he said, was the failure to reach a solution to the state's public employee pension debt that's approaching $100 billion.
"(As governor,) I would actually sit there in Springfield … be in the meetings, be there," Rutherford said. "If you've got to, be at breakfast at the mansion, lunch at the mansion, dinner at the mansion, overnight everybody at the mansion, actually substantively participate in that discussion. I didn't see that happening."