CHICAGO — On paper, Bill Daley’s resume would appear to put him high on the list of those seeking the Illinois governor’s office: commerce secretary to President Bill Clinton, chief of staff to President Barack Obama and manager of Vice President Al Gore’s White House campaign.
But elections, like sporting events, aren’t won on paper. And therein lies the challenge ahead for Daley in taking on Gov. Pat Quinn in the Democratic primary next March. Daley sees opportunity if he is able to define the governor before Quinn can define him.
“The path to victory first of all, in a two-person race (with) an incumbent — it is a referendum on the incumbent,” Daley said. “Generally when somebody runs for re-election, it’s about what they’ve done or haven’t done. … I assume that Quinn will not make it about that, but make it about me.”
But there are questions about what kind of politician Daley will make after years working behind the scenes and whether voters statewide are willing to embrace a candidate with a storied and controversial political heritage.
The son and brother of mayors who ran Chicago for a combined 43 years, Daley is telling the public he’s his own man and asking them to judge him separately. He’s also seeking his first elective office by trying to portray himself as an outsider while having been groomed through the years as a consummate insider.
It is, in many respects, a role reversal of Quinn’s re-election efforts to try to re-brand himself as the Don Quixote-esque outsider, the way he began his public career decades ago, while availing himself of the power of office.
Daley’s campaign is focused on the theme of experience. He views himself as being the adult in the room who can take charge of what has become a dysfunctional, one-party-controlled state government.
If there’s a picture that encapsulates Daley’s attempts to define his candidacy, it’s on his campaign website — the now iconic photo of Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Daley and Obama’s national security team in the White House Situation Room watching the takedown of Osama bin Laden. The caption? “This is what leadership looks like.”
Linkage to Obama also is a key part of Daley’s campaign strategy, from regularly promoting how his governorship would work to further the agenda of the White House to the more subtle features of the campaign website, which uses the colors and fonts of Obama’s presidential campaigns.
The race for governor will be held in a nonpresidential year when primary and general election turnout traditionally is lower, a drop that is expected to be especially noticeable without Obama at the top of his home-state ticket.
Leveraging his work for Obama could help Daley with African-American Democratic primary voters in the Chicago area who would not be predisposed to cast a ballot for someone with the Daley name.
“Do I think that helps me with (black voters)? Yeah. But I don’t think I come to the table with a deficit,” he said. “I haven’t been out there touting my Obama thing. It’s there. I’m proud of the year I spent as part of my being asked to do a major job that’s right at the center of great issues and crises.”
Obama provided Daley with plenty of material for a potential ad campaign in both announcing him as chief of staff in January 2011 and upon his resignation a year later.
When Daley joined the Obama administration, the president called him “an experienced public servant, a devoted patriot, my friend” who “possesses a deep understanding of how jobs are created and how to grow our economy.”
And when Daley departed, Obama said, “No one in my administration has had to make more important decisions more quickly than Bill” and credited his former aide as “instrumental in developing the American Jobs Act and making sure taxes didn’t go up on middle-class families.”
Yet on both occasions, Obama readily reminded people of where Daley comes from, saying he has “a genetic trait” for how government and politics work and noting that Chicago is a “city that’s been synonymous with the Daley family for generations.”
Daley acknowledged that his “may be an old name” in politics, but sought to separate himself from more than a decade of Democratic rule in the governor’s mansion featuring imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his former running mate, Quinn.
“I ain’t wearing the jacket for 13 years of Blagojevich and Quinn,” Daley said. “That’s a differentiator of enormous proportions.
“I wasn’t there. I was off helping Obama and in the private sector and before that with (President Bill) Clinton. So, I haven’t been hanging around Springfield for 12 years.”
The last time a Democratic governor candidate focused on the competency theme was in 2002, when Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools chief with a background as a state government policy wonk, narrowly lost the primary election to the big-spending campaign of Blagojevich.
Vallas, however, was a latecomer in trying to mine downstate votes, and Blagojevich’s primary victory came on the strength of lining up Democratic support and ballots outside the city and suburbs.
While father Richard J. Daley perfected a political machine and controlled the slate-making process, the son opted to forgo seeking the endorsement of Cook County Democratic leaders in August and viewed it as a foregone conclusion that it would go to Quinn as the sitting governor.
Quinn’s strong reception at the annual downstate Democratic county chairmen’s State Fair breakfast a few weeks ago also is viewed by Daley as a show of thanks from job-dependent political leaders.
“The path to victory is not on paper with committeemen. It’s getting out there,” Daley said.
“This race in January, February or March is going to get all the publicity in the world. This is the big race,” he said. “If I am able to raise the money I need to raise, they’ll see plenty of messaging from me. That’s where voters for the big races get their information. They don’t get it from the precinct captain ringing the doorbell in Eddie Burke’s ward.”
Burke, the 14th Ward alderman and a longtime Daley family nemesis, has long been a supporter of Quinn’s. But Daley maintained that by the time nominating petitions are filed in early December, his candidacy will be backed by many Democratic officeholders.
“The fact that this governor doesn’t have a floor leader for the Senate or the House is crazy,” he said. “This governor on gaming (expansion)? Pass something out and I’ll tell you if I like it. Concealed carry (of firearms)? Pass something out, I’ll tell you if I like it. (Reforming) pensions? Pass something out, I’ll tell you if I like it. C’mon!”
Quinn, Daley said, is “a third wheel. That’s not what the governor does.”
For his part, the governor defended his leadership style last Wednesday.
“Well, I think leadership is really working with everyday people and banding together for a common cause and the common good,” he said. “I’m a good organizer, and I think that’s what leaders are. There are a lot of people who talk about leadership. I do it.”
Quinn noted his downstate fly-around Tuesday to the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, to Mount Vernon to announce jobs with Continental Tire and to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville to cut the ribbon on a new science building.
“I think people in every part of the state know that I am a person who believes in jobs for everyday people and building things,” he said. “And that’s what we’re going to keep on doing. Building.”