Democrat Alexi Giannoulias claims victory over Republican Dan Brady in Illinois secretary of state race

Chicago Tribune/TNS

For the first time in nearly two dozen years, Illinois residents — and Illinois drivers, perhaps most significantly — elected a new secretary of state Tuesday.

With 57% of precincts reporting, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias led Republican Dan Brady in his bid to replace Jesse White, the beloved politician who has overseen the secretary of state’s office since 1999. Giannoulias had 57% of the vote to Brady’s 41%.

Libertarian Party candidate Jon Stewart, a former professional wrestler from Deerfield, had about 2% of the vote.

An emotional Giannoulias claimed victory over Brady, marking a political comeback a dozen years after losing a bid for U.S. Senate.

“Don’t ever let anyone say you’re finished,” Giannoulias told the crowd. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you stay down on the mat, ever. The trials you face in life will introduce you to your strengths, but tonight is not about my comeback.”

Brady, deputy minority leader in the Illinois House, said he called Giannoulias to concede and wish him well shortly before 8:45 p.m.

“This is certainly not the outcome we hoped for. But the hard work, dedicated volunteers ... always make me feel like a winner no matter what the numbers show,” Brady said. “Tonight starts an unknown chapter in public life for me.”

Giannoulias will head a sprawling operation with over 4,000 employees that arguably has the most interaction with the public of any state agency. It oversees driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, keeps track of business registrations, maintains an organ and tissue donation registry and operates state libraries, among other services.

Both candidates have a good relationship with White, though both said they would modernize and streamline the often time-consuming process of license renewals and other business overseen by the office.

White, the first Black politician to hold the position, regularly outperformed the rest of the Democratic ticket in statewide elections during his six consecutive terms.

“I’ve had the great pleasure of serving in this capacity for the past 24 years,” White told the Tribune shortly before the polls closed. “And I’ve enjoyed every moment of it, especially at a time when I first said that I was going to run for this office, I was told by Mike Madigan and the Democratic Party not to waste my time, not to waste anyone else’s time or their money because someone else is going to be the next secretary of state. And so I decided that I was not going to take my ball and go back home. I averaged 14 to 16 events every day, traveling all over the state of Illinois. And thanks to the people of the state of Illinois, they gave me the opportunity to serve in this capacity.”

White endorsed Giannoulias, a fellow Chicago Democrat, during the general election, though the 88-year-old politician did not back him during the primary earlier this year. He also offered praise for Brady, whom he has worked with for decades.

Giannoulias, who was Illinois treasurer from 2007 to 2011, was seen as a political up-and-comer before stepping away from electoral politics after losing a race to fill the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama.

He easily won the June primary over Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, who was backed by White and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The general election campaign was far less contentious than the Democratic primary in which Giannoulias and Valencia accused each other of ethical shortcomings.

Giannoulias attacked Valencia for her husband’s lobbying activities, which seemed even more problematic given the secretary of state oversees lobbying in Illinois. As part of his campaign platform, Giannoulias promised to ban spouses from lobbying their partners’ offices, block politicians from receiving money from people who work for them and curtail unregistered lobbying.

Valencia had raised questions about Giannoulias’ involvement in his family’s failed bank.

Broadway Bank failed in 2010, roughly four years after Giannoulias left his position there as a senior loan officer. Loans given to crime figures during his tenure have hung over his political career. Former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk made it a campaign issue in his successful bid for U.S. Senate in 2010 and Valencia tried to make it one this spring.

Detractors also argue Giannoulias made missteps while treasurer in dealing with the state’s Bright Start college savings program.

The program lost about $150 million after the fund manager used by Giannoulias, OppenheimerFunds Inc., invested in volatile securities tied to the unstable housing market. He was able to recover about $77 million from OppenheimerFunds for more than 65,000 Bright Start investors and, in defending his approach to the Tribune, said that financial analysts gave his administration generally high marks for how it ran Bright Start.

Since leaving the state treasurer’s office in 2011, Giannoulias has held positions on nonprofit and public agency boards. He headed the Illinois Community College Board, overseeing policies of the state’s two-year colleges from 2011 to 2015, and sat on the Chicago Public Library Board from 2018 until last year with some of the city’s civic elite.

Giannoulias also taught a political science course at Northwestern University, invested in a handful of restaurants and worked for about seven years as a wealth manager in the Chicago office of Bank of New York Mellon.

Brady had tried to become the first Republican secretary of state since White took over from George Ryan, who went on to become governor before going to prison for corruption that occurred during his time as secretary of state.

A funeral director and part-owner of a funeral home in Bloomington, Brady has been a state representative since 2001 and was the McLean County coroner from 1992 to 2000.

In announcing his endorsement of Brady last month, former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar — who preceded Ryan as secretary of state — said he believed that Brady had the best chance of any GOP candidate to win a race for statewide office.

In campaigning for the seat, Brady collected nearly $830,000 since announcing his bid last November, a fraction of the nearly $9 million his opponent amassed during the same period. During the primary, former Illinois billionaire Ken Griffin backed one of Brady’s primary opponents, former prosecutor John Milhiser.

On the campaign trail, Giannoulias promised technology reforms that include electronic vehicle titles, digital Real IDs and a “skip the line” program for driver’s license services.

In an effort to grab voters’ attention, Giannoulias’ TV ads have ignored these nuts-and-bolts issues in favor of commercials promoting his support for abortion rights and voting rights — two issues central to the national Democratic platform that the secretary of state’s office has limited or no control over.

Brady voted against pro-abortion rights measures in the legislature such as the 2019 Reproductive Health Act — enshrining abortion as a human right — and the repeal of a requirement for abortion providers to notify the parents of minors seeking the procedure. His candidacy was endorsed by the Illinois Federation for Right to Life.

He didn’t focus on social issues like Giannoulias had, saying voters don’t seem to care about those issues when it comes to who would be able to provide the best services as secretary of state.