An e-mail from Dan Hynes's campaign committee just arrived in my inbox. He's confirming what everybody's been hearing for a while: he's going to challenge Pat Quinn for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Hynes currently has one of those jobs that's custom-made for climbing the political ladder. He's the state comptroller, which basically means he supervises an operation that cuts the state's checks. It's not like the secretary of state's office, which can inspire a voter backlash if the lines for driver's license renewals stretch too far—as long as you're not wildly and obviously corrupt, you can spread your name around Illinois and come out looking unusually competent.
By most counts Hynes has done a fine job. Insofar as the state has had money to back up its checks, Hynes has issued them as required. He's advocated for smarter state borrowing policies and updated his office's Web site so that the public can track how the state government is using our money. Particularly helpful are the searchable databases of contracts and vendors.
Hynes, of course, is one of our state's many political legacies. His father, Thomas, was a state senator, Cook County assessor, powerful committeeman of the 19th Ward, and, for a stretch, mayoral challenger to Harold Washington. Dad's connections got Dan Hynes elected comptroller when he was just 30 years old.
They were similarly supposed to whisk young Dan into the U.S. Senate in 2004. Even though Blair Hull handed out stacks of money and Gery Chico had done Mayor Daley's bidding, most of the Democratic Party apparatus went to work for Hynes, including ward bosses in African-American areas whose residents were obviously more excited about Barack Obama.
On the stump Hynes was polite, inoffensive, almost shy, and altogether boring, which might not have been such a disastrous thing except that Obama was busy electrifying some of the same audiences. I remember watching Hynes campaign at a south-side nursing home—he started off quiet and nervous, then ended up charming the women with compliments and getting the men laughing at his jokes. I couldn't help but think that he really seemed like a decent fellow.
Yet when he'd step to the mike during a candidates' forum or address at a union hall, he spoke as if grudgingly fulfilling a "Why I Love My Country" assignment in tenth-grade speech class. I never heard him offer a convincing explanation of why he wanted to be a senator.
Obama nearly doubled up Hynes's vote totals in a shockingly wide victory. I've witnessed group despondency before—I was at the infamous Bartman game when the Cubs blew their 2003 World Series chance—but the Hynes campaign "victory" gathering on primary election night was rough going, with small circles of embittered drinkers wondering what the hell had just happened. Hynes, though, was at his best, delivering a simple, gracious speech that was more of an Obama rally cry than a lament over losing. If he'd shown that kind of heart when he was trying to get people to support his own campaign—if he'd run as if there was really something he just had to bring to the agenda other than an obligation to his family name—he might have been the one headed to Washington.
Instead he went back to doing his comptroller thing and looking for another opportunity. He was among the first elected officials to publicly encourage Obama to run for president, a move seemingly made out of enthusiasm for both his formal rival and his own renewed prospects of reaching the Senate. Enter Blago and Burris.
Then, political operatives say, he was was getting ready to launch a campaign for attorney general as soon as Lisa Madigan announced her run for higher office. Instead she decided to stay put, and Hynes turned his attention to the state's top job.
Yes, there's already a Democrat in that office, but Pat Quinn has struggled to lay out a clear, viable plan for confronting the state's budget or ethics messes, and he's widely viewed as little more than a caretaker. That's undoubtedly hurt his fund-raising—his campaign raised about $860,000 in the first half of 2009, leaving him with about $702,000 in the bank. Hynes brought in $905,000 and has $3.5 million to spend.
"We face an opponent who enjoys all the advantages of his incumbency," Hynes writes in his e-mail. I'm not so sure about that. He's right, though, when he says, "We need a leader who will offer a clear, consistent and compelling vision for our state's future."
Can Hynes do it better than Quinn has? Remember, it's all relative. My bet is that if Hynes keeps himself and others awake this time around—and perhaps even if he doesn't—he's got the nomination.