SPRINGFIELD – With the pledge, “I’m going to be back,” Dan Rutherford has vowed to do what scores of politicians have done before him – forge ahead in public life just minutes after losing a bid for the job he always wanted.
But after his once-promising campaign for governor fizzled dramatically, the state treasurer faces a unique set of challenges. First and foremost is how to effectively finish out his term in January amid what could be the constant commotion of the federal lawsuit he faces over allegations that he sexually harassed an employee and forced him to do political work on state time.
The Chenoa Republican has been in public life since being freshman class president at Pontiac High School and is the kind of politician who never forgets a birthday or anniversary. He talks about contributing to political reform efforts in Illinois and a return to the business world, and he won’t rule out another run for office.
But it won’t get any easier for him. He faces an April 17 status hearing in the lawsuit by ex-employee Edmund Michalowski, who claimed Rutherford made unwanted sexual advances toward him for two years beginning in 2011 and asked Michalowski to set up meetings with donors and organize parades and petition drives while on state time. Rutherford insists the charges were politically motivated to undermine his campaign.
“It’s there. The allegations are false and we’re going to go forward,” Rutherford told The Associated Press Thursday. “I’m doing all the stuff I need to and should be doing as state treasurer.”
But federal lawsuits are not quickly resolved, said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago who now runs a security firm.
“Civil lawsuits tend to take on a life of their own,” Cramer said. “If he’s going to vindicate himself, it will take some time.”
While the lawsuit will be a “huge distraction,” the treasurer’s office is “basically ministerial,” said Charles Wheeler III, director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Illinois’ treasurer is tasked with investing more than $15 billion in taxpayer dollars, helping Illinois citizens manage finances and keep track of unclaimed property. The office also manages college savings programs for Illinoisans.
“On a daily basis, the treasurer doesn’t set any kind of public policy,” Wheeler said. “I would say the office will function just fine if Rutherford has people in place to do the day-to-day work.”
About his future, the 58-year-old Rutherford said he will work in favor of putting a “Fair Map” amendment on the ballot this fall. It would set up an independent commission to draw legislative district lines every 10 years, taking the process out of the hands of politicians. He said it’s too early to talk about future runs for public office.
Rutherford collected 1.8 million votes statewide in winning the treasurer’s office in 2010, though only 62,000 on Tuesday. After the lawsuit undermined his campaign, he ultimately closed his election night party to the media, making only a brief public statement to reporters at a Pontiac restaurant.
Professionally, Rutherford said he will consider a return to the international business world. He worked for years for ServiceMaster, working to help the company expand licensing services abroad.
“I’m going to continue to be active,” Rutherford said. “I’m going to continue to advocate for people and causes that I believe in, and we’ll see how and where the future may take me.”
A former colleague described Rutherford as a tireless worker who developed a constituent-service operation that was a model for other legislators and has the best list of contacts of any statewide politician.
“You’ll never outwork Dan Rutherford,” said Tom Ryder, a House Republican leader in the 1990s when Rutherford was a new House member. “And folks have an astounding loyalty for Dan.”
Another confidante who isn’t writing Rutherford off is Steve Kim, the Chicago lawyer who was Rutherford’s lieutenant governor running-mate.
“Most people probably would have said, ‘Hey, I’m going to throw in the towel,’” Kim said. “Because he didn’t, it demonstrates to me that he’s very strong ... and someone that I know will be back very strong onto the statewide stage.”
Contact John O’Connor at http://twitter.com/apoconnor