URBANA — In announcing his candidacy at the Champaign County veterans' memorial outside the county courthouse, Jerry Clarke emphasized what he believes will set him apart from others seeking to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson on the 13th Congressional District ballot this fall.
Clarke, 46, is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, has served in the military for 27 years including three combat tours in Iraq, and has earned two Bronze Stars and the Air Medal Award for eluding enemy fire while in flight.
"When I was old enough," Clarke said Monday as he announced his candidacy to replace Johnson on the ballot, "I honored the memory of my parents and their belief in service by joining the United States Army after I graduated from Pawnee High School. I joined the ROTC program at the University of Illinois to become a commissioned officer in the United States Army and later was fortunate enough to be accepted into flight school.
"For the past 22 years, I've flown helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. I'm proud to have served with brave men and women in the military, and through three tours of duty in Iraq, strengthening my beliefs in truth of mission, common goal and greater good. I honor those I served with, especially the ones that did not return."
Although several Republicans are considering seeking the appointment to replace Johnson on the ballot, Clarke is the first to make a formal announcement. He spoke Monday in Urbana and in Springfield. The 13th Congressional District runs from Urbana on the northeast to Collinsville on the southwest.
Johnson announced last week that he will retire from office in January when his congressional term ends. The Urbana Republican said he's leaving Washington after six terms to spend more time with his family of nine children, 11 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
It's unclear when the 14 Republican county chairmen in the district will meet to name Johnson's replacement on the ballot; several of the county chairmen won't be chosen until their county conventions on April 18. But the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, Pat Brady, said Monday that state GOP officials want to assess the candidates and their campaign strategies.
"I'm managing this process ... and it's going to be a fair, open and transparent process and we're going to thoroughly vet all these candidates and choose the best one," Brady said. "We're going to ask each of these candidates to submit to us a plan on how they intend to run their campaign, how they're going to raise money ... how they're going to run their race. I think those are fair questions to ask anybody who's going to run for a congressional seat as a Republican.
"We want to and we intend on winning this seat and we want to make sure that we have a candidate who can get it done."
Others who have said they are considering making a bid include state Sen. Kyle McCarter of Lebanon, state Reps. Adam Brown of Decatur, Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington, former state Rep. Mike Tate of Springfield and Rodney Davis, an aide to U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.
State Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said Monday that he had decided against running for the seat. Just last month, Rose won an expensive two-way race for a state Senate seat against rural Ellsworth lawyer/physician Tom Pliura.
"I appreciate the many well-wishers who suggested that I run for Congress. But this was a quick and easy decision: I am not interested in running for Congress at this time. Camille and I have been extremely blessed to have so many wonderful friends and supporters, but our children are very young," said Rose, 38, the father of four children. "So for many of the same reasons that Congressman Johnson mentioned in his retirement speech, our family just isn't interested at this point."
But Tate, who served 10 years in the Illinois House and even roomed with Johnson when they were both in the Legislature, said he's "excited" to jump back into politics. Since leaving the House in 1990, he has been CEO of the Independent Insurance Agents of Illinois.
"I know what it's like to make a payroll and I know what it's like to make tough decisions," said Tate, who said he left the Legislature to help his wife raise their family of three young children. They now have four children but all are out of the house.
"I've been making phone calls to various chairman and I'm receiving a good response. I'm in the race," Tate said. "It's not something where I want to be Strom Thurmond or anything, but I think we need people who are willing to make a sacrifice and are willing to make changes and aren't in it for the money and aren't in it for a career in government. But they're in it to do the right things and get this country back on track."
And McCarter said he's "still giving it some thought."
"I'm trying to weigh out how I can be most effective," said McCarter, 49, a member of the Illinois Senate since 2009. "My wife, Victoria, and I, we're talking about it and praying about it, trying to determine whether this is a good thing for us."
One of his considerations, he said, is whether he would have to give up ownership of the manufacturing business he owns in Lebanon.
"If that's part of the decision that may just be one of the things I have to weigh too," said McCarter.
Clarke, meanwhile, called Johnson his "mentor" and said that politically "we may differ around the edges, but for the most part Tim and I pretty much see eye to eye."
He said he believed he too would be relatively independent of the House Republican leadership. Johnson recently was ranked among the most independent House Republicans.
"I would probably be cut out of Tim Johnson's mold," said Clarke, who described himself as against abortion and same-sex marriage but said he is opposed to an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, as Johnson has suggested.
"Some of my men were over in Iraq who just pulled out. I have people in Afghanistan right now. I'd like to see them all come home, but we've got to be careful on how we do that," said Clarke. "As you draw troops down in a combat zone, the troops that remain there are in grave danger so I'm for withdrawal. But I'd like to see a planned withdrawal and I don't think politicians can do that. I think we've got to leave that to the military."
Clarke also avoided saying he would abide by term limits, as Johnson originally did only to renounce his three-term pledge later. Johnson is now serving his sixth term.
"We have term limits every two years," Clarke said. "I believe there's an election every two years."
Clarke said he would "run on my credentials, what my record is, my military service, my service to the state of Illinois and to the federal government."
Before becoming chief of staff to Johnson in 2001, Clarke was deputy chief of staff to former Illinois House Republican Leader Lee Daniels and was part of Daniels' political operation which included Michael Tristano, who was indicted on federal charges and served a year in prison.
Clarke said Monday that he never did political work on state time and was proud "of my service back then."
"Some people are going to try to make that a problem, but that was one of the hardest jobs that I ever had, when I was the policy director in the state of Illinois. I worked 60, 70 hours a week," Clarke said. "We rolled back the gas tax, we did Chicago school reform, we did the anti-stalking bill, we did a carjacking bill. We did a lot of great things during that time."
Clarke said he would welcome his former boss' endorsement but doesn't have it.
"Not yet," he said. "Tim wants to see who gets into the race before he makes any decisions."