Jim Dey: Some statewide candidates grasp for non-issues
The two Republican candidates for state treasurer are jockeying for advantage in the upcoming March 18 primary, each claiming that he's better than the other.
There's not much glamor associated with the office; the Illinois Constitution gives it responsibility for the safekeeping and investment of public money and securities.
Given the office's scant sex appeal, reporters and candidates can't resist sexing it up. That's why news reports on the treasurer's race include references to the candidates' positions on same-sex marriage, to the extent they have one.
Treasurer candidate and state Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego voted for same-sex marriage in the Legislature, a position he knows might alienate some conservatives voting in the GOP primary but that he hopes will appeal to liberal voters in the November general election.
The other candidate, DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan, does not have a formal position on same-sex marriage. Although he said he believes marriage is an institution between a man and a woman, Grogan has never voted on the issue in a legislative forum and points out that homosexual marriage "is not related to the duties of operations of the treasurer's office."
Grogan, of course, is right. But one would never know it based on candidate comments about administrative elective offices like treasurer, comptroller and secretary of state in Illinois.
These offices have narrow, straightforward duties strictly defined by law. But they are so boring that candidates know there is no sizzle to sell. So they come up with their own campaign pledges that, at best, have only a tenuous relationship to the offices they seek.
A classic example of grasping desperately for a non-issue was provided by former state comptroller Dan Hynes, a Chicago Democrat. He ran for comptroller so he could use the position as a springboard to higher office. After being elected as comptroller, he sought the Democratic nominations for the U.S. Senate and governor.
Hynes lost both races and, no longer being able to abide being state comptroller, retired from public life.
But when Hynes was a first-time candidate — ambition oozing from every pore — he promised that if elected comptroller he would devote his energy to expanding health care services for the elderly.
That's not to say that elected officials can't use their offices in imaginative ways designed to endear themselves to the public.
Incumbent Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a Republican running for re-election, came up with a great way to use her office to draw favorable attention. She calls it "Comptroller's Critters."
"Comptroller's Critters was designed to give people the opportunity to adopt a pet, and reduce costs at a state and local level. Specifically, the Office of the Comptroller has partnered with shelters throughout the state to help reduce the number of animals waiting to be adopted. Through this effort, we hope to address animal overpopulation and save on animal control costs," according to the comptroller's website.
Looking for a new best friend? Just click on "Adopt Now" and remember come election time that Topinka made it all possible.
Cross, of course, is not running for treasurer based on his vote for homosexual marriage. He's found some other non-issues — one that will appeal to most Republicans — to emphasize.
If elected treasurer, Cross has promised to "enforce a balanced budget," provide "proactive oversight" over various state agencies and "combat waste and fraud in government."
Beyond speaking out, the treasurer has no real authority to do any of that, a minor point in the middle of an election campaign.
But Cross, if he wins his party's nomination, has nothing on the Democratic candidate for treasurer, state Sen. Michael Frerichs of Champaign.
If elected treasurer, Frerichs is promising to boost the economy and create jobs, enhance educational opportunities, assist veterans and support farmers, the environment and local communities. On top of that, Frerichs said his treasurer's office will be the "most accountable, ethical and transparent" in Illinois.
How would he do all those things? Well, minimally at best, given the limited authority of the treasurer's office. But to the extent treasurers can do any of the things Frerichs promises, it's through already existing programs in the office.
Since there's no lying in election campaigns, let's just say these promises are grotesque exaggerations — bait for those who don't know any better or care.
It's the same thing in the race for comptroller, which is responsible for maintaining the state's accounts and paying bills.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon is seeking her party's nomination to run against incumbent Republican Topinka. Simon is promising to be "a comptroller who provides accountability" by providing oversight of local units of government. Simon has argued that Topinka is to blame for the theft of $40 million by an officer from the city of Dixon and suggested the oversight her comptroller's office would provide would prevent that sort of thing.
Not likely, but it sure sounds good. Dixon officials, auditors and bankers all missed the breathtaking theft by longtime city employee Rita Crundwell, who is now in prison.
Nonetheless, it's Simon's watchdog promise against Topinka's real dogs (and cats). Voters will have to decide which is the warmert and fuzzier.
In case readers haven't figured it out by now, these campaigns are all about getting elected. These minor league positions are launching pads for political wannabes. If they get elected, winners don't even run their offices, except in the most matter-of-fact way.
That's why longtime statehouse reporter Charles Wheeler, who now teaches journalism at the University of Illinois-Springfield, offers a unique brand of advice for treasurer candidates, advice that also applies to the winners of other ministerial offices.
"Having watched this office since the 1970s, probably the most important qualification for anyone to be state treasurer is for them to hire competent people to run the office and then stay out of their way," he said.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.