CHICAGO – Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon ended five months of uncertainty about her political future on Wednesday by launching her 2014 bid for Illinois state comptroller, likely setting her up for a tough race against one of the state's most successful Republican officeholders.
Simon, a Democrat, formally announced her plan during a campaign stop in downtown Chicago, where she vowed she would be "the most aggressive fiscal watchdog this state has ever seen." She was scheduled to appear in Springfield and her hometown of Carbondale by day's end.
"I want to go beyond just transparency and where there is corruption and misspending," she told The Associated Press ahead of her announcement. "Let's engage people about where we're spending money as a state. Let's all be watchdogs."
Simon is likely to face at least one Democratic challenger in the primary: Will County Auditor Duffy Blackburn has mentioned plans to run. The primary winner would face a tough race against Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a former three-term state treasurer who lost the 2006 governor's race to Rod Blagojevich.
Topinka, who is a former state lawmaker, once served as head of the Illinois Republican Party. Along with experience in winning statewide offices, Topinka has a fundraising advantage, reporting more than $805,000 cash on hand at the end of the second quarter, compared with $272,000 for Simon and $25,300 for Blackburn.
Simon said she's up for the challenge.
"I'm looking forward to a good competitive race," she said at the news conference.
Simon took aim at Topinka during Wednesday's announcement. Since local governments are required to submit financial reports to the comptroller, Simon said Topinka's office could have raised a red flag earlier about scandals such as one that occurred in the northern Illinois community of Dixon, where the city comptroller pleaded guilty in February to stealing nearly $54 million from the city.
"It's time for a comptroller who provides not just accounting, but accountability," Simon said.
But Brad Hahn, a spokesman for Topinka's office and her campaign, said the comptroller "has raised transparency to a new level" since taking office. That included efforts to push the southern Illinois city of Washington Park to submit financial reports, which hadn't submitted data for years and is grappling with major financial issues. He also said she's committed to the job and doesn't view it as "a consolation prize."
"Sheila Simon has been shopping for an office for months. It appears that she settled on this one," Hahn said. "We welcome her to the discussion."
In February, Simon abruptly announced her plans not to seek re-election with Gov. Pat Quinn, but she declined to say which statewide office she would seek. Instead, she played up her legal background as a former prosecutor and law professor, fueling speculation that she would run for attorney general. Simon's campaign later mentioned comptroller and treasurer as possibilities.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan said this month she would seek another term rather than challenge Quinn. That caught Simon by surprise, but she said she was happy with how things turned out.
She said she didn't choose to run for state treasurer because she wasn't seeking an easier contest.
That office is wide open, with Treasurer Dan Rutherford seeking the GOP nomination for governor. However, for Simon to jump in would mean challenging a fellow downstate Democrat, state Sen. Mike Frerichs, who is exploring a bid.
Simon, the daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, worked in Jackson County as an assistant state's attorney and taught law at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. She was placed on the 2010 lieutenant governor's ballot by Democratic officials even though she had little campaign experience. She had run for Carbondale's mayor, but lost.
The comptroller is central to handling Illinois' tax money and maintains the state's accounts, paying bills and signing checks to employees.
She said that while weighing her decision, she thought about a conversation she once had with former Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, who died in March. Netsch helped rewrite the state constitution and was the first woman to get the Democratic nomination for Illinois governor.
"I asked her what she found most exciting. It was the opportunity to teach people about the budget, to get more people engaged about how we spend money as a state," Simon told AP. "That's exactly what I want to do."
The office has received attention lately as Quinn moved to halt lawmakers' pay after they failed to act on pensions. After reviewing the matter, Topinka said she had no choice but to withhold the paychecks, citing a previous court case. The head of the House and Senate filed a lawsuit against Quinn over the issue on Tuesday.
Simon said she agreed with Topinka's assessment that Quinn was within his power to veto the budget to cut salaries. If elected, she says she also plans to keep a focus on Illinois' massive backlog of unpaid bills.
"It's a shameful state that we're in," she told AP. "That's something that lawmakers need to pay attention to."