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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Would Dan Proft Really Run for Governor Again?

After finishing in the single digits in 2010, the Republican ended up with a nice job cohosting on WLS with Bruce Wolf. But he’s thinking about giving it up for another shot at the office.

Dan Proft

José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Dan Proft didn’t make it out of single digits in his run for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010.  He told me during a meeting late last week that the worst part of running was “raising money,” and he self-financed his campaign to the tune of $125,285.

Yet he’s considering a encore in 2014.

To do that, he’d have to give up his WLS-AM 5-9 am radio talk show, that he cohosts every weekday with sports guy Bruce Wolf. (Proft and Wolf were named permanent hosts after Don Wade and his wife Roma left the show to deal with Don’s treatment for a malignant brain tumor.) The hyper-articulate, conservative policy wonk now enjoys a platform that allows him to talk politics, economics, and sports (another passion), and interview local, national and international experts and celebrities.

Yet he told me he’s  just a couple of months away from making the difficult decision.

Proft, 40, is a practicing Catholic, Wheaton-raised, who attended Catholic school, then Northwestern, and night law school at Loyola several years later. He sees Illinois as a state on the road to disaster. Not only that—it could be just a few yards from crashing.

“The usual suspects” who are likely running for the Republican nomination—Dillard, Brady, et al—did nothing, Proft argues, to clean up the mess in Springfield  over the last 25 years. His goal, Proft declared, is to “turn Springfield upside down.”

Should he decide to try again, he’ll be lugging some heavy baggage. Proft has run several campaigns since graduating from college, and he was one of those who proposed Maryland resident (and uncontrollable gadfly) Alan Keyes as the Republican to go up against Barack Obama in the 2004 general election for the U.S. senate seat from Illinois. Proft has done PR work for Cicero’s president, Larry Dominick, and he has reaped some very rich contracts with the corruption-plagued town. 

Proft, who is single and lives in Streeterville, calls that old news that was hashed over in 2010. He also claims to have opened up the books of his now defunct company and invited reporters to take a look. Only one, Anne Kaanagh, then at Fox News Chicago, took him up on it.

Here’s an edited and condensed transcript from an hour-plus conversation Proft and I recently finished.

CF: I have heard you mention that you are adopted. Why do you make that a public matter?

DP: I was three days old…. I was born April 29, 1972. I was born… [just] months before the Roe v Wade decision. I often think that had the law been a little bit different, had it been earlier, perhaps the world would not have been availed of my brilliance, and so this is something I think hits home when we talk about the issue of respecting unborn life from conception to natural death…. I want to be someone who speaks with moral clarity about issues of exalting and protecting life.

CF: Were you a conservative when you were a college student at Northwestern?

DP: I ran a conservative speakers bureau. I was part of the group that founded an independent alternative newspaper, the Northwestern Chronicle…. an alternative to the Daily Northwestern…. [Former Medill Prof] David Protess was one of our supporters.  He was a liberal who came to our defense; he actually organized a lot of the journalism professors because there was an effort to de-recognize the Chronicle…. And we had Charlton Heston intervening on our behalf…. Eric Zorn [the Chicago Tribune columnist who is often critical of Proft] opined too in our favor.

CF: What has been your best moment on the air since you took over the WLS morning show?

DP: Interviewing Elie Wiesel; that was really cool. I remember reading [his memoir] Night in high school. Obviously his story and his impact in the world of being a consistent promoter of peace; it was an honor to interview him.

CF: Your worst moment?

DP: Maybe a bit of a screaming match with [Chicago Teachers Union president] Karen Lewis. I don’t like to have conversations devolve into that. She was just antagonistic and she was just so intent on filibustering her way through the interview.

CF: Have you interviewed her since?

DP: Yes…. The interesting thing about her and the one thing I kind of respect about her is that she likes to mix it up…. If you’re going to be as outspoken and as aggressive as she is, then at least be willing to engage in the give and take. And she has done that, at least on our show, so that’s a good thing. 

CF: So you’re really considering another run for governor?

DP: I’m thinking about it. I really like the gig at WLS… and I know what a prestigious position it is… but by the same token my interest is in advancing principles and ideas in the policy arena… and I still think the Republican party here is in desperate need of leadership…. I feel it’s important to at least explore the possibility. What I won’t do is what I ended up doing last time…. How I thought I was going to be able to finance the race did not materialize.  I ended up running a bit of a quixotic race. I won’t do that this time. Part of the exploration process is making sure that I will have the resources necessary to be able to [ask]  the questions  that I think should be [asked]. If I can’t put that together than I won’t do it. If there was a [former Indiana Gov.] Mitch Daniels or a [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker in the Republican field then I wouldn’t even consider it.  But there is no transformative leader.

CF: What about Bruce Rauner?

DP: I like Bruce, have great respect for the business he built, but … I have my questions about it. This is somebody who is just entering this arena and we’ve seen the results oftentimes of the novice self-funder in this arena, so I have concerns…. You need somebody that understands the policy arena [and] also the political landscape and can navigate the flag for economic liberty ideas across that landscape…. The job is not CEO. I agree actually with Bill Daley on this; it’s not a CEO job because you don’t get to fire the General Assembly…. The issue of who can build a coalition is necessary including a nontraditional coalition to advance the flag for those ideas…. I think you have to have people who understand the arena but also have a demonstrated willingness to challenge the establishment of both parties in Springfield. So Rauner has kind of an experience challenge and the other potential candidates have a challenge of explaining what they’ve been doing in Springfield for the last 25 years.

CF: On the democratic side, Lisa Madigan seems to have become, like Hillary Clinton was in ’08, the inevitable.

DP: I don’t believe we should suspend the election and just anoint her as the next governor…. Lisa Madigan is somebody who has not been under scrutiny of any sort for a decade. She’s someone who, in addition to the issue of her father, she… ran for attorney general in 2002 and criticized Joe Birkett… for falling down on the job to prosecute public corruption. If that’s the standard, she hasn’t done much to advance the cause of rooting out public corruption in this  state…. Lisa Madigan probably intimidates some; she doesn’t intimidate me…. She’s not inevitable. Nothing’s inevitable…. You have to have armadillo skin to be in this arena, especially in Illinois…. I think Jim Edgar called it blood sport here.

CF: Among the republicans who have indicated they’re running, who do you like?

DP: I think the reason I’m contemplating [running] is the inability to answer that  question…. I think those guys who have been in Springfield for two decades—[state treasurer Dan] Rutherford, Dillard, Brady—have to answer for what has happened on their watch. 

CF: You were working [as director of policy and coalitions] for Jack Ryan in 2004 when he was running in the general election against Barack Obama for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald. After news broke that he liked to take his former wife to sex clubs and have sex with her in pubic, he dropped out. Did you try to persuade him not to leave the race?

DP: Yes…. Many times, and even after he announced he was withdrawing but before he submitted his paperwork, I tried to get him back in the race. I think he would have acquitted himself well even if he had lost the race, which was a difficult race. But by the end of that first week after the [divorce] documents were released, the pendulum was already swinging back in his direction. People were saying, “It’s his wife, it’s not about business, who cares?”…. I think it was an unfortunate decision he made  and it was against the advice and counsel of myself and others too on the campaign.

CF: He was replaced by Alan Keyes and we all know what a disaster he was. He lost 70 to 27 percent. Were you the moving force in getting Keyes to come to Illinois from Maryland?

DP: I was one of them…. Jack Ryan withdraws and we’ve got six weeks with every republican under the sun being offered the opportunity to swat in and fill Jack Ryan’s position and nobody wanted to do it…. Essentially they’re going to have 90 days to put together millions of dollars, introduce [themselves] to the voters, and I got to beat this guy who is on this upward trajectory so people either didn’t want to do it or didn’t want to give up their seat to do it…. People look back at it and… they act like there’s a choice between Alan Keyes and Jim Edgar. In fact there was a void. So we could have done one of two things: We could have said, “OK,  we’ll just concede the seat"…. I thought that was a bad idea. So we took a flyer.

CF: Did you know Alan Keyes? 

DP: Didn’t know him, never met him, just knew of him. He had that short-lived TV show… “Alan Keyes is Making Sense”….. I knew him because he was a  Reagan-era official [an ambassador to the UN Economic and Social Council]. I knew him because I heard about his oratory skills and I’d read some of the things he had written…. People forget… it came down to the choice for the republicans of Alan Keyes or Andrea Grubb Barthwell [a physician who worked in the W. Bush White House].

CF: So what went wrong?

DP: All of this is predicated on a discussion with Keyes by people who knew him better than I did, saying, “Alan you’re coming to Illinois. You have to tell us that… you’re going to run a political campaign that is sensible. You’re not going to run some messaging campaign. You’re not going to be a prophet"…. And he agreed with that. He said yes, I understand the difference between the kind of campaigns I ran in Maryland [where he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate] and the kind of campaign I’d have to run here and I need to listen. And that lasted for about 10 days and he went off the rails into the wilderness. It was a terrible disappointment.

CF: Is it true that Keyes never conceded to Obama?

DP: Yes, I called Robert Gibbs and I apologized to him. “I’m sorry, he won’t concede. You won fair and square”…. It  was  a classless move…. It was the wrong thing to do, but he did a lot of wrong things in the campaign.

CF: What do you say about those rich contracts you got in Cicero? 

DP: I was in business, I was a vendor…. And if you don’t like some of my clients, I understand; I don’t like some of my clients  either from that past business, including candidates whose campaigns I ran, and I get it and I get it’s easy to play the guilt by association game but that’s all it is…. All those questions came up [in 2010] and I presented all of my work product and anybody who wanted to look at it could have. The only reporter who actually came to look was Anne Kavanagh who was then at Fox News Chicago.

CF: What do you think about Ben Carson [the African American Johns Hopkins physician who criticized President Obama during the National Prayer Breakfast as the President watch stone-faced].

DP: Carson showed moral courage which is something the Republican party has lacked. That’s why he’s a celebrity…. He spoke truth to power…. Ben Carson has lived the life consistent with the values he espouses…. He’s a thoughtful, intelligent guy who showed courage, and thoughtful and intelligent and courageous are not adjectives that a lot of people have been using about the Republican party lately…. So that’s why he has captivated the imagination of a lot of people, including myself.

CF: Would you like to see him run for President in 2016?

DP: I don’t know. But he’s certainly more accomplished than our current president.

CF: Do you have someone you’re looking toward in ’16 as a good candidate for Republicans?

DP: I’d like to look at Midwestern governors. I like Walker. But not just Midwestern. I think [Louisiana Gov. Bobby] Jindal deserves consideration—people who have been in executive positions who have a track record of success on the important reform issues and are also deep thinkers, independent thinkers. I wish Mitch Daniels had been the candidate who had run this last time…. And Scott Walker… despite Wisconsin’s progressive tradition, they’ve provided some great free-market solutions…. like school choice in Milwaukee…. This is where the Republican party needs to be. In Illinois, for example, two-thirds of 4th graders do not read at the 4th-grade level, so Chicago may be one of the worst school systems in the country…. So let’s talk about the human cost of bad public policy…. Charter schools are a way station to real school choice…. You have to have opportunity scholarships. You want to change these school systems, change the way money flows…. To make spending decisions by empowering parents… [to] provide the same choices for their children that Rahm has for his or Barack has for his.

CF: In your lifetime, who’s the best governor of Illinois?

DP: [long pause] Well, there’s not a lot to choose from…. Would have to be Jim Edgar…. When Illinois was doing well we could have an incrementalist governor like Jim Edgar was…. What we need now is someone who wants to turn Springfield upside down and completely rethink and reorder all of the big ticket systems of government.

CF: How do your respond to Mark’s Kirk’s change of mind to support same-sex marriage?

DP: I like Mark personally and he has been an inspirational leader for the republican party in this state. I disagree with him on this…. People who believe we should keep the definition of marriage what it is are not looking to regulate anybody’s personal relationships. People should love who they want to love. I don’t want the state involved in that business. In fact it’s the people who are suggesting the state should step in and redefine marriage to be something it has never been defined to be who are demanding further intervention by the state into peoples’ personal relationships…. Once you start redefining things you have to keep redefining other things to  substantiate your initial redefinition, and so now in France it’s not mother and father; it’s parent 1 and parent 2…. This  idea that you’re going to let the government in to redefine an institution that predates government,  that meant one thing for 2000 years, that’s provided the foundation for family and thus western civilization….

CF: The teardown of Ronald Reagan’s childhood home in Hyde Park?

DP: It was unfortunate; [it] would have been nice to save  at least a portion of that as a place of historical importance…. I’m nostalgic for President Reagan…. He’s the greatest president of the 20th century as far as I’m concerned.

CF: Can Pat Quinn win another term?

DP: Yeah, it’s Illinois. We have a history of finding whatever the worst possible outcome is and making that reality. I think Lisa Madigan may be a worse outcome. But Pat Quinn, if he maintains the support of the public sector unions and they continue to finance him, [could win]….  He has a story to tell. He has efforts that he has made. I don’t think…. Republicans should be underestimating any democrat in this state given what we have done [to] ourselves over the last decade.

CF: Just to lighten up here a bit: Before you became a permanent host, when you were a regular guest commentator on Don Wade and Roma, you used to review American Idol. You don’t seem like the type to watch it.

DP: [Don, Roma, and I] were just talking and I told them how much I loved the program, and the idea of me liking American Idol was so… against type that they said… “You’ll be our American Idol correspondent.”

CF: What appeals to you about American Idol?

DP: Think about Chris Daughtry…. He’s the guy who’s working in the muffler shop and everybody said, “You know you can really sing. You should try out for the show.” So he went from being a guy working in a muffler shop to be discovered as this guy with this great talent to sing and perform, and now he’s an international star. And so the idea of a show providing people with talent  that don’t have access to the opportunities to present the talent to get access. I like that.

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