Al Klein, the head of the Champaign County Democratic Party, was not his usual glib self the other morning.
He was talking very carefully about Ann Callis, the chief judge of the Madison County court system who was scheduled to speak Sunday night at the Champaign County Democrats' spring dinner.
A day later, a Callis ally left word with Klein that she would not be speaking, although she still apparently plans to attend the dinner.
Here's why: Callis is looking into running for Congress in the 13th District, for the seat now held by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville.
But you probably won't get her to say that, because doing so likely would mean she'd have to step down from her $181,479 a year job on the bench.
Canon 7 of the Illinois Judicial Code of Conduct says that "a judge shall resign from judicial office upon becoming a candidate for a non-judicial office either in a primary or in a general election."
The code doesn't define when a person becomes a candidate: Is it when she or he files nominating petitions, when she says publicly that she is looking at running, or at some other point?
But Callis apparently isn't taking any chances. She did not return phone calls seeking comment, and Klein was unusually cautious talking about her.
"I can't be as explicit here as I usually might be," he said. "But she's highly mentioned and recommended by people who know her."
He and a number of other local Democrats met with Callis last week as she did a mini-tour of Champaign-Urbana.
"I'm just looking for the right words to say that she is not running. She's not running, but she is being asked by a lot of people to consider and to meet the Democrats who are eager to settle on a candidate this time," he said. "She says it very plainly that the minute she says, 'This is it," that she would have to resign instantly. It's not like you can run and then resign when you take office. So she'd be giving up her judicial career the minute she starts to run for Congress.
"If she even comes close to that, (Rep.) Davis will accuse her of announcing. You notice how I'm on eggs here when I talk about this?"
Callis also met recently with Dr. David Gill, the Bloomington physician who ran against Davis last November and lost by 1,002 votes, or three-tenths of 1 percent.
"I met her several times when I was down in Madison County in the last campaign. Then I sat down and visited with her a week or two ago," Gill said. "I believe she is interested. I don't believe she had made up her mind, at least when I had spoken with her she hadn't completely decided what to do. But she certainly had some level of interest in it."
Callis was in a similar situation before. Two years ago Democrats tried to talk her into running in the 12th Congressional District, for the seat that had been held by former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville. She took a pass that time — "I came to the conclusion that at this time, I could not leave a community that I love, employees and colleagues of Madison County Circuit Court that have become like family to me," she said — and the seat eventually went to Rep. William Enyart, another Democrat.
But Democrats now want her to run in Davis' 13th Congressional District, even though her home outside of Troy is in the 15th District represented by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.
Democrats already have one candidate willing to challenge Davis, University of Illinois physics Professor George Gollin, 59, of Champaign. And Gill said he hasn't ruled out another attempt.
"I do think Mr. Davis can be beaten and I think he should be beaten for the well-being of all the people who live here in Illinois 13," Gill said. "There are a lot of variables to weigh as to whether to go through it again."
He said he did not try to dissuade Callis or Gollin from running against Davis.
There are some who are surprised that Callis would want to run for Congress, a pay cut from her salary as a judge. She also has been mentioned as a possible federal court judge or even an Illinois Supreme Court candidate.
But she certainly would be an intriguing candidate. No one I talked to could recall a sitting circuit court judge giving that up to run for Congress.
"I think the work that she is doing (as a judge) is wonderful," Gill said. "You know, she's been doing it for a long time. Life is short. It doesn't surprise me when people look to do something else for their fellow man."
As the chief judge in the 3rd Judicial Circuit, she has name recognition in several counties in the southern end of the district, she has contacts and money (she self-funded her campaign for judicial retention last year and her father, Lance Callis, is a Granite City trial lawyer who made millions by investing in the Argosy Casino in Alton, then selling his shares in 2005) and she has a good reputation.
"She's a reformer," Klein said, noting that Callis had reassigned a colleague from asbestos cases after it was discovered that the judge had given most jury trial weeks to three law firms that had contributed to her political campaign. "In Madison County you have problems and you have solutions and on that divide she's been with the solutions."
Ironically, Shimkus — who is Congressman Davis' political mentor — was quoted as praising Callis when she ran for retention last year. "Chief Judge Ann Callis has earned my respect and the respect of Republican and Democrats alike for the reforms she initiated to improve our local court system and for the innovative programs she has launched," Shimkus said in a posting on Callis' campaign website.
Callis is a graduate of St. Louis University, a former prosecutor in Madison and St. Clair counties, and has been on the bench since 1995 when she was appointed an associate judge. In 1999 she became the first woman in Madison County to be named a full judge, and she was elected to the position in 2000.
Correction. In last Sunday's column I incorrectly stated that U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., would be at Sunday night Democratic dinner. Not true. A member of Durbin's staff will be there to speak for him, Klein said. My apologies.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.