SPRINGFIELD – For the first time in nearly a quarter century, there is an open race for the office of Illinois secretary of state as incumbent Democrat Jesse White prepares to retire, and Republicans hope that will give them an opportunity to pick up a statewide elected office.
It’s often said that more people interact with the secretary of state’s office than any other department in state government, except perhaps the Department of Revenue.
The office is primarily known for administering motor vehicle services – drivers licenses and vehicle registrations – but it reaches far beyond that. The Illinois secretary of state is also the state librarian, which provides services to public libraries throughout the state. It is also manages the state archives, serves as the state’s official recordkeeper, administers lobbying laws and operates its own police force.
John Milhiser, a former state and federal prosecutor from Springfield, and Dan Brady, a longtime state representative and assistant minority leader from Bloomington, are vying in the upcoming June 28 primary for the chance to carry the GOP banner into the general election.
Milhiser, 52, is part of a “slate” of candidates endorsed by billionaire businessman Ken Griffin. But Brady, 60, has been leading in recent polls, although a large block of likely GOP voters remained undecided.
Both candidates have made the fight against corruption a major theme in their campaigns. But even though the last major corruption scandal in the secretary of state’s office happened during the last Republican administration, they argue that it’s relevant throughout Illinois politics.
“Yeah, Democrats don’t have a monopoly on corruption in Illinois,” Milhiser said in a phone interview. “And when you look at the history of corruption in the secretary of state’s office, it is Republicans, it is Democrats. But unfortunately, you know, that corruption is in state government.”
Brady agreed, saying “unfortunately, anything corrupt is labeled as Springfield. Not, per se, the secretary of state’s office, but the perception is across government itself.”
He said as secretary of state he would like to have a policy of open doors and “sunshine on everything.”
Brady is a funeral director by profession and a partner in the funeral home firm Kibler-Brady-Ruestman. He served as McLean County coroner from 1992 until he was elected to the Illinois House in 2000.
“I believe my background certainly gives me a distinct advantage of experience when it comes to county government where I served as county coroner and worked with the secretary of state’s office in particular on organ tissue donation issues,” Brady said.
If elected, Brady said he would like to overhaul and upgrade technology in the office to reduce wait times in the driver services area and he would like to see all driver facilities in the state fully staffed.
Milhiser served as U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois from 2018 to 2021. Before that, he was the Sangamon County state’s attorney for 16 years. Today, he teaches high school government, history and English at an adult education center in Springfield.
“As Secretary of State, you have to wear many different hats and operate in many different lanes, which I have throughout my career,” he said. “And not only have I prosecuted cases in state court … but I also have executive experience managing a state court prosecutor’s office as the Sangamon County state’s attorney, working with law enforcement, working with community groups, setting up partnerships to run that office, working with the county board, working with a budget, hiring and firing people. So that executive experience is key.”
He, too, said he wants to upgrade technology in the office and improve its online services. He also said he wants to improve adult literacy services that are funded with grants from the state library to local public libraries.
One of the most contentious issues facing the state, which is certain to carry over to the next administration, concerns electric vehicle manufacturers and the question of whether they should be allowed to sell new vehicles directly to consumers.
Under Illinois law, new motor vehicles can only be sold through franchised dealers, and vehicle manufacturers are prohibited from operating such a dealership. In recent years, however, electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla, Rivian and Lucid have begun selling their vehicles directly to consumers over the internet.
Last year, the Illinois Automobile Dealers Association filed a lawsuit seeking to enforce that law and prevent manufacturers from selling directly to consumers. That case is still pending in Cook County Circuit Court.
Asked whether he thinks the statutes need to be updated, or if the manufacturers should change their business model, Milhiser said he thinks it’s an unsettled question.
“I will tell you, I’ve had conversations with the Automobile Dealers Association and that is definitely something that we need to continue to talk about. And one big reason is, we need to make sure we protect the consumers. So if you have these entities coming in that don’t have the service and they don’t have the support, we need to make sure that the consumers are protected. And that’s a conversation we for sure need to have moving forward.”
Brady, meanwhile, said he will wait to see how the court rules in the case, but that he thinks the law is being applied unfairly.
“I believe that there needs to be a level playing field for our existing automobile dealers that are here in this state,” he said. “The law needs to be applied evenly and fairly.”
He said if legislation needs to be amended, all stakeholders should be at the table.
“I don’t believe from the knowledge of what I have of what was done and how … that law was applied was fair when it comes to our existing Automobile Dealers Association,” he said. “So it’s seems to me that it was interpreted and applied in an unfair manner.”