SPRINGFIELD | Both candidates seeking the Republican nomination to be Illinois treasurer say they want to help right the state's financial ship — one bringing years of legislative experience to the job, the other promoting his technical expertise as a certified public accountant.
Former House Republican leader Tom Cross and DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan are jockeying to be the GOP candidate for a post being vacated by incumbent Dan Rutherford at a time when Illinois finds itself in a continuing financial mess. Each is pledging to use the post as a catalyst for change, though the treasurer's role in state budget affairs is limited and recent office holders have used the position as more of a stepping stone to higher office.
Cross brings a number of advantages to the race, including wider name recognition due to his years in Springfield and in party leadership, not to mention having raised more than six times as much cash as Grogan.
Yet possibly complicating the Oswego Republican's bid is his decision in November to vote for legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois. He was one of only three House Republicans to do so, and the vote held considerable risk as he was appealing to Republican primary voters who tend to be socially conservative.
"I think people are going to say, 'I may not like it,' but he's trying to fix the state, he's trying to fix the budget, he's been aggressive on (pension reform), and I like what he's been doing on financial issues," Cross said in an interview.
While Grogan says he believes marriage is between a man and a woman, he has not made an issue of Cross' vote on the campaign trail, noting same-sex marriage is "not related to the duties or the operations of the treasurer's office." He has focused on promoting his experience tracking county finances and operations, arguing that it makes him the best qualified candidate to run the treasurer's office efficiently.
Illinois' treasurer is tasked with investing more than $15 billion in taxpayer dollars, helping Illinois citizens manage finances and keeping track of unclaimed property. The office also manages college savings programs for Illinoisans. Those programs have landed previous officeholders in hot water, as both Rutherford, a Republican now running for governor, and his predecessor, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, were criticized for the way they ran the Bright Start program, which lost close to $150 million in recent years.
"Having watched this office since the 1970s, probably the most important qualification for anyone to be the state treasurer is for them to be able hire competent people to run the office and then stay out of their way," said Charlie Wheeler, a professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield and a longtime statehouse reporter.
In recent years, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to merge the offices of Illinois treasurer and comptroller, another state constitutional officer whose primary function is paying the state's bills. Both Cross and Grogan say they support the idea.
Cross, 55, stepped down from his House leadership post in August when announcing his bid for treasurer. He had held the post for a decade, and has served in the Legislature since 1993. The former prosecutor has made fiscal reforms, pension reform and budget cutting a focus of his legislative career. In an Associated Press campaign questionnaire, he pledged to battle against government fraud, establish an "integrity unit" for the office and institute quarterly audits of the college savings program.
He says his gay marriage support comes from a longstanding belief in protecting individual freedoms. He acknowledged encountering blowback from some primary voters, but says he hopes his record will help them look past it. If he wins the primary, the vote could help him win broader support against a Democrat in the general election at a time when increasing numbers of Illinoisans support same-sex marriage.
Gloria Campos, the Republican Party chairwoman in southern Jackson County, agreed that Cross' vote could have an impact in some swaths of the state. But at this point, she said, the issue is not being raised much.
"One time I have heard a remark. That's about it," she said.
Grogan, 45, is a CPA from Downers Grove and has served as Du Page's auditor since 2008. He told the AP that speeding up the turnaround time in returning unclaimed property was one example of how he'd make the treasurer's office more efficient. He says he'd use the office as a "bully pulpit to help drive reforms away from (Illinois') fiscally irresponsible past."
Cross has used his fundraising advantage to run radio commercials for months, while Grogan has so far been unable to afford a single ad. Cross has raised $502,000 for the race, compared to Grogan's $79,900. At the end of the most recent reporting period in December, Cross had $388,617 left and Grogan $21,087.
The winner of the March 18 primary will face Democratic State Sen. Mike Frerichs of Champaign in the November general election.