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I want my life to count (Daily Herald)The Job-like tests Jim Ryan has faced -- conquering cancer, losing his daughter to a brain tumor and nearly losing his wife to a heart attack, all within 15 months -- have given him clarity.- Jun 24 9:06 AM ET

Al Musella's Comments: (This is his personal views and are not necessarily the views of the Musella Foundation!)


Posted on: 06/24/2001

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Local - Chicago Daily Herald - updated 9:06 AM ET Jun 24
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Sunday June 24 09:06 AM EDT "I want my life to count"

I want my life to count

By Eric Krol - Daily Herald Political Writer

The Job-like tests Jim Ryan has faced -- conquering cancer, losing his daughter to a brain tumor and nearly losing his wife to a heart attack, all within 15 months -- have given him clarity.

"The adversity in my life has sharpened my focus, and I think given my public service a sense of urgency that maybe I didn't have before. That every day does count now," said Ryan, Illinois' attorney general for the past 6½ years.

That clarity and urgency almost certainly mean Jim Ryan will be running for governor next year, even if fellow Republican Gov. George Ryan decides to stand for re-election.

"I haven't ruled anything out, really," Jim Ryan told the Daily Herald in a recent interview at his Elmhurst home. "But I would say I'm about 98 percent sure what I'm going to do."

That Jim Ryan won't come right out and say he's going to run for governor, as several sources close to him confirm is the case, shows the political tightrope he's walking.

The scandal-plagued governor has yet to decide whether he'll run for a second term. On the one hand, Jim Ryan doesn't want to anger the governor and inadvertently goad him into what would be a costly and nasty GOP primary contest next March. But Ryan also doesn't want to wait much longer for the governor to announce his plans, out of fear he wouldn't have enough time to build momentum for a primary election that's just nine months away.

How Jim Ryan handles this tricky political dilemma is a key first test to whether he'll become the first suburban governor in 25 years and the first ever from DuPage County.

"I think he needs to step gingerly in this area," said one George Ryan confidant who asked not to be identified. "If (Jim Ryan) pulls the trigger prematurely, the gun may blow up in his hand."


Beyond the political questions he must answer lies another for Jim Ryan: his health. The attorney general spent a year starting in the summer of 1996 undergoing treatment to remove three tumors and their remaining cancer cells from his abdomen. The grueling cure took away his hair, which has since grown back, but not his determination. Today, Ryan says he's healthy.

"I go every six months now for checkups at Northwestern (Memorial Hospital). They did a full battery of tests, scans, MRIs, full body scans, X-rays, CAT scans, blood tests -- you name it, I have it," he said. "That was last month, and I was given a clean bill of health, and I'm cancer-free right now as far they know."

Given the family crises Ryan has been through, voters might not blame him if he decided to hang it up and go to work for a big Chicago law firm, cashing in on his credentials. The look his wife, Marie, gives him when the question is asked shows the thought probably has crossed her mind, too. Ryan will have none of it, however.

"I'm relatively certain that will never happen," he said. "I want to make a difference. I want my life to count."

And so Ryan plows ahead with plans to run for governor, hiring a high-powered Virginia firm to make TV ads and bringing aboard a campaign director, Stephen Culliton, a DuPage County judge who will step down from the bench to run the show.

"There's obviously a lot you can do as governor," said Ryan, insisting that he's still at least mulling over a re-election bid as attorney general or a run for U.S. Senate against tough-to-beat Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield.

Ryans' relationship

The increasingly less subtle hints Jim Ryan's camp has been throwing out about a run for governor strains his relationship with Gov. Ryan.

The two have campaigned together on three statewide tickets, but have not been particularly close. While running for secretary of state in 1994, George Ryan backed attorney general candidate Jeff Ladd of McHenry County over Jim Ryan, who won anyway.

But Jim Ryan also has been respectful of the governor. During last summer's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Jim Ryan said he would not run for governor if George Ryan sought a second term.

"The governor may very well decide to run for re-election," Jim Ryan said at the time. "And if he does, God bless him."

When asked whether that still holds true today, Jim Ryan offers a different response.

"First of all, you (reporters) asked that question a year ago," he said. "Secondly, I try to show deference to the office of the governor. I have always. I do personally like him.

"But I will say this: Beyond personal likes, whether it's the governor or anybody, all of us in public life have a higher duty. And it goes beyond friendship and sometimes even party," Jim Ryan said.

The apparent flop is something Jim Ryan will need to explain to the governor, the George Ryan confidant says.

"George Ryan is from the old school. Your word is your bond," the confidant said. "If he believes he's been betrayed, his relationship with Jim Ryan could be permanently spoiled."

It's a sit-down meeting Jim Ryan has yet to pencil in.

"The attorney general has not had any conversations with the governor about this," said Dennis Culloton, Gov. Ryan's spokesman.

The governor continues to weigh his options, raising campaign cash across the country, with the announced goal of revealing his plans around Labor Day. If Jim Ryan's gubernatorial signals are factoring in, the George Ryan camp isn't copping to it.

"None at all," Culloton said when asked about Jim Ryan's impact. "The governor is going to make that decision based on discussions with his family and what else he feels he needs to accomplish."

At least one potential Republican gubernatorial candidate is sticking by George Ryan. Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, a Lake Forest Republican, said she would not run for governor if George Ryan seeks re-election.

"I wouldn't do it," said Wood, a potential candidate for attorney general and U.S. Senate. "I believe if we have a sitting governor, there is a certain amount of respect we need to show him."

Ryan's record

Given his background as a former DuPage County state's attorney, it's no surprise Jim Ryan has made crime a top priority in an office that's traditionally been focused on consumer protection.

Ryan helped push through new laws requiring that the worst violent criminals serve at least 85 percent of their sentences and that repeat sex offenders get treatment before being released. Earlier this year, Ryan's office worked with the Illinois State Police to close loopholes in gun owner law so that convicted felons can't buy guns so easily. The problem came to light after shootings this year at the Navistar plant in Melrose Park and a bar in Elgin.

Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller said those kind of laws help prosecutors do their jobs.

"I think he has an advantage over some of the other AGs (attorney generals) who were politicians first and law-enforcement officials second," Waller said.

Supporters say Jim Ryan also brings a record of character and integrity, qualities voters might be looking for next year after years of headlines about the driver's licenses-for-bribes scandal that largely took place under George Ryan's watch as secretary of state.

"It will stand out. Jim answers both of those (character and integrity) with no problem," said Pat Durante, the Addison Township GOP chairman and a Jim Ryan adviser.

On other hot issues, Jim Ryan said he still supports the death penalty, but with changes that raise the bar on who gets put to death. He also supports a ban on assault weapons and requiring trigger locks on handguns.

As for Illinois FIRST, Gov. Ryan's $12 billion public works program that raised license plate sticker fees by $30, Jim Ryan said the state needed to spend money on roads and bridges, but not "that much money."

Conservative enough?

Jim Ryan is not without his public critics, however. Somewhat surprisingly, they mostly hail from a faction of the GOP's conservative wing, which typically praises candidates who oppose abortion rights as Ryan does.

Included among the critics is the Carpentersville-based Family Taxpayers Network, which supports conservative state Sen. Patrick O'Malley of Southwest suburban Palos Park, the only announced GOP gubernatorial candidate. The group recently put out a top-10 list of reasons Jim Ryan can't win the governor's race.

The list criticizes Ryan for supporting a gay rights measure, failing to investigate the Rev. Jesse Jackson (news - web sites)'s finances during this year's flap over Jackson's extramarital affair, and for failing to prosecute doctors who perform partial-birth abortions.

"The law is interpretive in its application and a pro-life attorney general could have been on solid constitutional grounds to make this a test case," said Joe Wiegand, the group's executive director.

Jim Ryan doesn't offer much response to the list, saying only that it would be presumptuous to think the group speaks for all conservatives in Illinois.

Democrats acknowledge that Jim Ryan is a strong candidate with a heart-wrenching story to tell about his family. But they are quick to point out that Republicans have held the governor's mansion for 26 years and scandal-fatigued voters might be ready to make a change.

Democratic political consultant David Axelrod questions whether Jim Ryan will be much different from past GOP administrations, given his ties to the Republican establishment.

"It's pretty clear that you can change Ryans, but you've still got many of the same supporting cast," said Axelrod, who is sitting out the Democratic primary because too many of his clients are getting into the governor's race.

Every modern governor in the state has supported abortion rights in some form, Axelrod said, meaning Jim Ryan's opposition could be a liability.

Beyond that, however, even Democrats haven't had much negative to say about Jim Ryan. The same is true among Republican leaders and operatives, but they also privately admit they aren't too fired-up about a Jim Ryan campaign, either. They compare him to former Gov. Jim Edgar, a reserved politician who didn't push a grand plan through Springfield in his eight years but steered the state ship through choppy financial waters.

That comparison might not be a bad thing for Jim Ryan -- Edgar retired in 1998 with among the highest approval ratings in the state's history.

Count: Jim Ryan ‘98 percent sure'

of what he's going to do next

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