Life is a series of crossroads. Once you’ve made your choice, don’t look back.
So is the life philosophy of Illinois GOP’s 2006 nominee for Secretary of State.
Pontiac-born and raised, State Senator Dan Rutherford recently shared with Illinois Review a series of political crossroads he has encountered over his past 50 years living in central Illinois.
A graduate of Illinois State University, Rutherford, at age 25, was the nation’s youngest state executive director in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. Illinois wasn’t a red state or a blue state then, he says. Twenty-five years ago, Illinois reflected the mood of the nation, a bell-weather state.
Winning the state for Reagan started Rutherford down a path that has led to his own first statewide campaign.
We pick up in a three-part interview with Rutherford talking about the day after the 1980 national victory . . .
Rutherford: . . . We win the thing, and the next day I go to the Schaumburg office. It’s like, wow, we also won the Senate – the U.S. Senate. It’s a huge change about to take place in America. Jimmy Carter was leaving, the U.S. Senate went Republican for the first time in X and this was huge.
And my job was to make sure everything got packed up and sent off to Virginia.
Within about 24 to 48 hours, I got a phone call saying, ‘Congratulations, you did a great job. Illinois went Reagan. We’re interested in having you be a part of the transition team.’ Now the transition team is, of course, the segue to the White House.
Within 24 hours of that phone call, [Illinois Governor] Jim Thompson called and said, ‘I’d like you to stay in Illinois and work for me.’
Now that probably became one of the bigger crossroads that I had to confront in my life. There have been a couple of others since, but that was one of them. Do I go to the transition team and to work at the Reagan Administration – could have been the White House or one of the senior agencies -- or do I stay in Illinois?
As I thought about it, I decided I’d stay in Illinois. And I’ve never looked back – and that’s probably the best advice I’d give to anyone that I talk with about being at a very pointed time in their life asking, “Which direction do I go?” Make your choice, and do not look back. The choice you will have made is absolutely the right one.
FE: So, you made the choice to stay in Illinois and not get involved in national politics?
DR: It was not necessarily that, but it did give me the chance to be a moderate-sized fish in a smaller pond of Illinois as opposed to a 25 year old small fish in an extremely large ocean of Washington D.C.
FE: Were you thinking that way at the time?
DR: Absolutely – you know I did. Yes, I did. Because I reflected back on a Reagan campaign event in Cleveland [when the national campaign gathered all fifty states’ executive directors and political directors], when a gentleman drawing on a big cigar asked me, “Whose sonny are you?”
Well, I proved to him that I’m Jim Rutherford’s son, but I’m damn good. And I knew that that would only be compounded multi-fold in Washington. I asked myself where could I make a difference for me, Dan, as far as growth and development, and potentially for the future for where I wanted things to be? I figured it had to be better at that stage because, yes, I handed Reagan his folders and drove around Nancy, but I was not going to be the guy off the West Wing, and I knew that.
But for Thompson, I at least had the opportunity to be engaged personally and my job for the Thompson administration – that first complete year – was to work with liaise from the new governor to the Reagan White House, because I knew the folks that were going onto the team. That was when Jack Block was the Illinois Secretary of Agriculture, Director of Agriculture of the State of Illinois, was nominated by Ronald Reagan to become the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Part of my job was to work with him and to get him confirmed through the Senate, part of my job was to get as many presidential appointments as the governor of Illinois wanted there to be – from ambassadors to assistant deputy secretaries to the U.S. Government. That was my job. I had a great job doing that for Thompson.
We went to the Reagan inauguration with Jim Thompson, and one of the headiest moments of that occasion was one of things I was to do was put together a dinner party at the Jockey Club for Jim Thompson and his entourage.
His entourage were the secretary designee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jack and Susan Block, Mr. and Mrs. Carr (Jane’s parents), Mr. & Mrs. Thompson (the Governor’s parents), Bob Millott, the chairman of the board of the FMC, Jug Anthony (the owner of the tavern outside the gates of Caterpillar in Peoria) and Katherine Graham (the publisher of the Washington Post). I mean what an eclectic group Thompson put together for this dinner!
By the way, Thompson rode in the limousine with [Vice President] George Bush and [President] Ronald Reagan during the inaugural, and had the two of them sign an inaugural program. He gave that program to Jug Anthony.
And you see something like that, and I’m sitting back at 25 – I’m touching one of the most prestigious moments in American history in a room with the next Cabinet officials of America, the publisher of one of the greatest free presses of the world . . . and a tavern owner.
I remember Jim Thompson – this probably was one of the most touching moments to help develop my life or my persona – was Jim Thompson raising his glass to make a toast to his parents, to Jane’s parents, to these titans of Illinois industry – and to one of the most internationally-known journalists Katherine Graham and to his friend, Jug Anthony, the owner of the tavern across the street from Caterpillar.
And you see that and you think, “Wow, you could really be like a real, genuine person, and not get yourself all hooty in this business.” And that helped me click as far as, you know, get involved in this stuff, but [a warning], don’t get yourself caught up in it.
FE: Is that why you began running for office at the state rep level?
DR: I ran for state rep – Lee Atwater, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee – died of a brain tumor under George “41” . George Bush appointed Clayton Roiter to be chairman of the RNC. Clayton was the Secretary of Agriculture in Illinois. That opened the Secretary of Agriculture seat. Bush appointed Congressman Ed Madigan to be the Secretary of Agriculture, and that opened the Congressional seat in central Illinois. State Rep. Tom Ewing ran in a special election to replace Madigan in Congress, and opened up his state rep seat. That’s when I ran for office.
FE: That was when?
DR: In the ’92 election.
FE: Just before the Republican sweep in ’94?
DR: I was elected to the State House in ‘92, in the minority. And then in ‘94 we went to the majority. It was fun for one term, and I was a relatively new member of the Assembly at that time.
FE: Again you followed the idea of a moderate-sized fish in a small pond to run for state rep? Rather than run for statewide office the first time out?
DR: We need to back up here a little. In ‘81/’82, I got a phone call from Jim Thompson at 10:00 at night. He and Tony Valukis – who later became U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois, predecessor to Dan Webb, predecessor to Patrick Fitzgerald – Tony was Ty Fahner’s campaign chairman. Ty was Attorney General for state of Illinois. Tony said he needed a campaign manager for Ty’s campaign.
Thompson said, ‘I’ve got Reagan’s on my staff,’ and called me at my house in Springfield at 10 o’clock at night, freaked me out, thinking, “Oh my God, what’d I do? Screw something up?”
Governor says, “Would you like to visit with the Attorney General, it will be to talk about being his campaign manager?” I said, “Thanks Governor, very much. . .”
FE: Nice recommendation. . .
DR: Yeah, what am I going to say? He was on his way to Chicago. I managed his campaign. We, unfortunately, lost to Neil Hartigan, but that experience gave me my second statewide experience. That’s when I got to know Tony Valukis, Dan Webb, Dan Weil, Jim Fletcher, Louie Rathje, you know, all these folks from the early days of Thompson group.
Then I went on to be the head of international business for DECA for Thompson for three years – Illinois Department of Commerce. During that experience is when I came to know a company called Service Master. I knew them from Japan, not from the United States, because I worked for two and half years bringing in Mitsubishi Motors, which is today in my Senate district down in Normal.
I’ve now been twenty years with Service Master Company, today a Vice-President of the company. And that’s important because I’ve been in the private sector for America’s premiere service company for twenty years. And six years into that, an opportunity came up for me to serve in the General Assembly, and it once again, became another crossroads in my life as to which path to follow.
Another example of learning from someone I want to emulate to help do for others what was done for me. Bill Pollard was the chairman and CEO of Service Master, and I knew Bill very well during the six years I worked for the company. When I sat down with him to tell him I’m interested in running the state legislature, and I remember very well, he said, “Dan, there will be tension and there will be stress, but we will manage this," meaning here’s an officer of a Fortune 500 company getting ready to go into an elected office, which, if elected, will take time away from his work.
For a complete year, I campaigned hard. I got elected. When I got elected, I went half salary with the company; I wanted to be fair with them. The company wanted me to stay with them, but I was going to be fair, and we all worked it out on salary, you know – there was tension and there was stress, but we’ve managed it. Now I’ve had the good fortune for the last fourteen years to be a member of the IL General Assembly and an officer with a Fortune 500 company.
That is one more example of the kind of stories that affected me. If I can help people have a part of what I can afford them, whether it's on my little staff or the young people I speak to or that I can help, I want to give them a break and help them . . .
Rutherford says he is most proud of working in the Illinois General Assembly for the past five years to revamp the funding formula for long term nursing care. He says his legislative mentor Senator John Maitland (R-Bloomington) “teaspoon-fed” him the issue, but his own grandmother’s entrance into long term care made the issue personal.
Rutherford says the challenge of getting together warring factions in the funding debate provided a challenge in consensus building that he enjoyed. He believes the whole experience has added to his preparation for statewide office.
In Part 2 of the Rutherford interview to be published on Wednesday, he will explain why he chose to run for Secretary of State, and will convey his stands on key issues affecting the office. . .