Ex-chief of staff Clarke may have early lead to replace Johnson

Central Illinois Republicans say they expect a number of candidates to seek retiring U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson's 13th Congressional District seat, but so far almost as many are out as are in.

Among the Republicans who had been mentioned as potential candidates, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, state Rep. Jason Barickman of Champaign, and former state Sen. Duane Noland of Blue Mound all said Thursday they are not interested in the position.

Four other Republicans — Jerry Clarke of Urbana and state Reps. Chapin Rose of Mahomet, Dan Brady of Bloomington and Adam Brown of Decatur — have expressed some level of interest.

Clarke, Johnson's former chief of staff and currently the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Wheaton, already has said he is "very interested" in the position.

Also intrigued is the 26-year-old Brown, now a candidate for a second term in the Illinois House.

"It's definitely something that I need to explore," said Brown, who added that he had called all 14 county chairmen in the district although he had not reached all of them. "You take a look at that district and a lot of the votes are right here in central Illinois, right here between Sangamon and Macon and Champaign counties. We're right in the wheelhouse."

Clarke said Thursday evening that he too had been calling Republican leaders and gotten a good reception.

"It's been very positive, very encouraging," Clarke said. "The people I've talked to hate to see Tim leave, but they've been very good to me."

But for now Clarke, a military veteran, political insider and a central Illinois native, may have the inside track. He has even assembled a team to help him, he said.

"I've been in politics for a long time so I know a lot of smart friends to call on," he said.

Rose, who recently became the GOP nominee for a state Senate seat, said Wednesday that he would take a look at the congressional seat.

And Dan Brady, who has a joint office with Johnson in Bloomington, said "I will keep all my options open. What I have to do is re-examine where I'm at."

He said he had begun to discuss the congressional opening with his family and political advisers.

"I feel I have a connection with Tim because we're similar in style, being out among the people and in constituent service," Brady said.

Clarke, 46, may be the early favorite, some Republican leaders said privately, because he is familiar with both state and federal politics, having been on the staff of the Illinois House Republicans for 12 years and the chief of staff for two Illinois Republican lawmakers. He ran Bill Brady's gubernatorial campaign in 2010. He grew up in Pawnee in Sangamon County. He's the 15th Congressional District state central committeeman, so he knows many county chairmen and other committeemen from around the state — and it's the county chairmen who will select Johnson's successor, probably in May.

Finally, Clarke has served three tours of duty in Iraq.

Plus, he now lives in the county that has the most weighted votes in the selection process. Champaign County GOP Chairman Habeeb Habeeb said Thursday that he has 22 percent of the votes to be cast by the county chairmen in the new 13th District. Macon County is second with 16 percent, followed by 15 percent from Sangamon County and about 14 percent from Madison County.

"So it will take three or four counties to elect someone," said Habeeb, who added that his phone "has rung off the hook. I haven't been able to answer all the questions."

In what he said was "a wild guess," Habeeb predicted there would be "at least six" candidates.

"This is way bigger than Champaign County. This is important to all congressional districts in Illinois and all congressmen in Illinois and important to the Republican National Committee," he said.

Johnson said Thursday he didn't "intend to pressure anybody" with a favorite candidate, although he said he would offer his input "if they asked me I will, absolutely."

"There's always an intimation here that this is an inside job," Johnson said, "and that ain't gonna happen. That's out. I think there are a number of well-qualified people. Virtually all of them are my friends. I know some better than others. We'll just have to let the chairmen decide."

Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Brady said he intended to bypass the congressional race and focus on state issues.

"I have given it thoughtful consideration," he said. "At this time I believe the interests of Illinois are better served if I stay focused on the challenges facing the state."

Noland, now the president and CEO of a group of Illinois electric cooperatives, said he is "in a great spot in my life and so I'm not a candidate for this job."

And Barickman, who recently won a primary for a state Senate seat, said he had "no interest at all" in the position.

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