Jim Dey | Harold faces long campaign trail in run for AG

Jim Dey | Harold faces long campaign trail in run for AG

With 102 counties and a population of more than 12 million, Illinois is a big state.

Undaunted, Champaign lawyer Erika Harold, a Republican candidate for attorney general, is trying to cover it from top to bottom.

That's the way it is with candidates for statewide office — there's always one more hand to shake, one more speech to give, one more of practically everything. It takes its toll.

"I'm making very good use of under-eye concealer. It makes you look well rested even when you're not," joked Harold.

Sounding chipper on Friday morning, the 38-year-old Harvard law graduate was preparing for another day on the campaign trail, an experience Harold describes as a "marathon run at a sprinter's pace."

She was preparing to drive to the Chicago suburbs, booked to speak at a Palatine GOP meeting followed by another appearance at the United Southland Republican Women's Luncheon.

Her schedule called for setting aside time to make telephone calls and answer emails, followed by an evening at a Women's Empowerment Campaign Gala & Awards Night in Rolling Meadows.

She has been or will be a keynote speaker at 38 Lincoln Day dinners, including one the evening before in Coles County.

With just 16 days to go before the March 20 primary election, it's getting down to the end of the beginning. That's why Harold said she "usually campaigns seven days a week."

"I had a couple of days off during the (Christmas) holidays, and I had a day off when I got the flu," she said.

Harold faces fellow Republican Gary Grasso, a DuPage County lawyer and county board member in the primary election. Eight Democrats, including former Gov. Pat Quinn, are competing for their party's nod in the attorney general's race.

The run for attorney general wasn't expected to become such a scrum.

When Harold announced last year that she was running, she was perceived as the political equivalent of David taking on Goliath — veteran Democratic incumbent Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

But Madigan shocked the state's politicos when she decided that, after four terms in office, she would not seek re-election.

Suddenly every ambitious pol with a law license started looking into making a run to succeed Madigan. Ultimately, nine more candidates (eight Democrats and a Republican) joined Harold in this quest.

The candidates each have their own priorities, and they often overlap.

In addition to her policy proposals, Harold said she hopes to light a fire under voters distressed over the financially disastrous and dysfunctional state of the state.

"Part of the goal of running for office is to inspire people to believe that change is possible and to encourage them to be part of that change," Harold said.

That's part of why she cites the attorney general's office as a useful "bully pulpit" to address important issues, including the ongoing opioid crisis.

"The attorney general's office can be a great convenor of people to talk about what may be the best practices (for fighting this drug epidemic) throughout the state," she said.

She describes that approach as one way to "make better use of existing resources" in a state that is effectively bankrupt.

Harold brings star power to the campaign, a consequence of being named Miss America in 2003 — "a long time ago," she notes.

Harold said voters are "curious" about that aspect of her background, and she likes to tell audiences how the experience affected her life — creating a platform for her to discuss school-bullying issues and generating the prize winnings that financed her law school education.

In addition to her "aspirational" rhetoric, Harold is focusing on policy issues. She wants the attorney general's office to be more active in the fight against government corruption, plans to reallocate office resources to strengthen the public access counselor's ability to respond to freedom-of-information requests and pursue changes in the criminal justice process that expand special drug treatment and mental health courts.

"There is a difference between someone who needs treatment and someone who needs punishment," she said.

Mostly, however, Harold said she's trying to spark a "personal connection" that is "beyond partisan politics" between herself and the voters she meets. Harold said that she's found it "very gratifying" when voters, after hearing her speak to an issue they care about, share their personal or family experiences.

She said those kind of interactions make the demanding campaign process a positive experience.

"You have to genuinely like meeting people and enjoy hearing their stories," Harold said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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