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The Downstaters ... Or Illinois politics' strange sense of geography

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 8, 2010 - Just how Chicago-centric is Illinois politics?

Until former state attorney general Jim Ryan jumped into the GOP gubernatorial race, political bloggers had been making much of the fact that only one of the then-six candidates running in the Feb. 2 GOP gubernatorial primary is from "downstate" -- and so held a political advantage.

The theory: The others would divvy up the Chicago votes, leaving the "downstater" to clean up in the rest of the state.

The general election promises to be a tasty contest, with Illinois voters going to the polls for the first time to elect a governor since Democrat Rod Blagojevich's arrest and indictment on federal corruption charges. Early primary voting begins on Monday.

The downstater? Bill Brady, a state senator from Bloomington. Granted, Bloomington is well south of the Interstate-80 loop, which is the southern border of Chicagoland, but it's a good hour's drive north of Springfield and miles and miles and miles from the metro-east, much less Carbondale.

While Brady makes a point of referring to himself as the only candidate from downstate Illinois, Kirk Dillard, a state senator from suburban Hinsdale -- about 20 miles west of the Windy City -- has his own connection to Not-Chicago. He points out on his website that he and his wife were married in "downstate Elkhart and continue to have strong ties throughout Illinois' heartland.''

Translation for "Illinois heartland": central Illinois.

(Route 66-ers will recognize Elkhart as that little burg just north of Springfield, right before Broadwell, home of the once-infamous Pig-Hip Restaurant.)

But now it appears that "downstate" advantage might be trumped by a little political asset called name recognition.

A December Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll had Ryan quickly jumping ahead of the pack with 26 percent of the 600 Republican voters surveyed. Andy McKenna, the former state GOP party chairman, was second with 12 percent. On the Democratic side, Gov. Pat Quinn, who replaced Blagojevich after his impeachment, was leading Comptroller Dan Hynes.

An interesting twist is that Ryan lost the governor's race to Blagojevich in 2002 partly because his last name was a turn-off to some voters, pundits say. At the time, former Republican Gov. George Ryan was embroiled in his own political scandals; he is now serving time in a federal prison on corruption charges.

Of course, in such a crowded GOP field, candidates have to try and set themselves apart from the pack, particularly when all must address the same but obvious issues: Political scandals and a fiscally failing state. All promise to rein in spending and provide transparency.

Here are the GOP candidates, in a nutshell:

Adam Andrzejewski, 40, of Hinsdale, uses a campaign theme built around his plan to publish state spending online: "Every Dime. Online. Real Time." If Ryan has the most recognizable name, Andrzejewski gets the prize for hardest to spell. He resigned from the "For The Good of Illinois" organization, which he founded, when he announced his run for governor. According to his bio, he is the oldest of seven children, who was raised in the "close-knit, farming community of Herscher, Ill., in Kankakee County. Before politics, he owned a phonebook publishing business headquartered in DeKalb, a $20 million business.

Bill Brady, 48, of Bloomington, a state senator since 2002. He identifies himself as a "downstate mainstream conservative'' who will be a governor "for all of lllinois.'' Brady and his brothers own and run a successful home construction and real estate development company.

Kirk Dillard, 54, a state senator from Hinsdale, says he wants to make Illinois a "destination economy" to help attract and keep jobs. He is a former chief of staff for Republican Gov. Jim Edgar. He also served as a judge for the Illinois Court of Claims and was director of legislative affairs for Gov. Jim Thompson.

Andy McKenna, 52, the president of a paper company, refers to himself as an "honest outsider" with no ties to Springfield, though he was chair of the state Republican party for four years; he resigned in April. He said his first act as governor will be to convene a jobs summit for the state's "best job creators.'' He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and has signed an Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes. McKenna is a Chicago native; his dad is chairman of McDonald's restaurants and a board member of Aon Insurance and the Chicago Bears.

Dan Proft, 37, who will be downstate Sunday for a meet-and-greet with voters in Belleville, has the slogan: "Illinois Isn't Broken. It's Fixed." (And not "fixed" in a good way.) Proft, a small business owner, is from Wheaton, Ill. He is a political commentator for WLS-AM 890 radio in Chicago and writes for conservative publications. Proft worked for yet another Ryan -- Jack Ryan, who pulled out of the 2004 U.S. Senate race after a publicized sex-scandal involving his ex-wife, Jeri Ryan. Proft then worked for Alan Keyes who moved to Illinois to run against Democrat Barack Obama.

Jim Ryan, 63, a two-term attorney general, is a Chicago native. He has published a 10-step plan that he says will restore fiscal discipline and efficiency to Illinois government -- and he says it will be implemented within 30 days of his election. Ryan now teaches at Benedictine University in Lisle, where he earned a degree in political science. He established the university's Center of Civic Leadership and Public Service.

Bob Schillerstrom, 57, of Naperville, has pledged to serve only one term if elected governor because he says Illinoisans need a leader who will focus on getting the state back on track -- and not be concerned with re-election. Schillerstrom is chairman of the DuPage County Board.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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