Last week, retiring Secretary of State Jesse White visited the Chicago City Council to listen to two hours of testimonials. The alders praised his athleticism (he played minor league baseball in the Cubs’ organization), his love for young people (he founded a tumbling team), and his dedication to public service (he was also a state representative and Cook County Recorder of Deeds).

Walter Burnett, alder of the 27th Ward, of which White was long committeeman, delivered a tearful tribute to his patron’s generosity.

“We played hockey in Cabrini-Green because Mr. White gave us hockey sticks,” Burnett said. “Folks got refrigerators and stoves, shoes and coats. If people didn’t have nothin’, he would go get it for them.”

Nobody, though, mentioned White’s best quality: his lack of ambition. When White first ran for Secretary of State, in 1998, he promised to seek no higher office. His Republican opponent Al Salvi, who had just lost a Senate race to Dick Durbin, would not make the same pledge.

And why should he have? The Secretary of State’s office has traditionally been a stepping stone to something bigger, a bush league ministerial post in which politicians prove they have the chops to serve as governor, or senator. White’s predecessor as Secretary of State, George Ryan, was elected governor in 1998. Ryan’s predecessor, Jim Edgar, was elected governor in 1990. Alan Dixon spent four years as secretary of state before going to the U.S. Senate. 

This should not be a surprise to anyone who’s done business at a Driver Services Facility (especially the one on Elston Avenue). The fidgety patrons want to get in and out as quickly as possible. The weary-looking clerks are waiting for their shifts to end. Nobody wants to be in a Secretary of State’s office. Not even the Secretary of State. Ryan was so eager to move up that his office sold truckers’ licenses for bribes, which ended up in his campaign fund. As a result, Ryan spent more time in prison than he did as governor.

Related Content

And yet, Jesse White kept his promise. He spent 24 years as Secretary of State, focusing his energies on making that place less of a hassle, rather than advancing his political career. Of the candidates to replace him, only Chicago Ald. David Moore has promised to remain Secretary of State. Former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias wants to be a U.S. senator. He ran for that office in 2010, losing to Mark Kirk. Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia is only 37. She has plenty of time to build herself up into something bigger than a Secretary of State. State Rep. Dan Brady, the Republican frontrunner, is a good bet for another Secretary of State for Life. Brady is a 60-year-old conservative from Bloomington. He can’t get elected governor.

Jesse White isn’t just the longest-serving Secretary of State in Illinois history; he’s the longest-serving constitutional officer, period. All those offices are treated as political training wheels. Over the past 40 years, almost every lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and comptroller has sought higher office, usually governor or senator. (Yes, even comptrollers think they’re ready for the big time.) One of the few exceptions was Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Madigan was often spoken of as a candidate for governor (A.G. is said to stand for “Aspiring Governor”), but was blocked from that office because her stepfather, Michael Madigan, was Speaker of the House. Here’s a chart detailing the fortunes of Illinois’s overambitious statewide officeholders.

Dave O’Neal, 1977-81Ran for Senate, lost
George Ryan, 1983-91Ran for Secretary of State, won
Bob Kustra, 1991-98Ran for Senate, lost
Corrine Wood, 1999-2003Ran for Governor, lost
Pat Quinn, 2003-09Acceded to governorship, won full term
Sheila Simon, 2011-15Ran for Comptroller, lost
Evelyn Sanguinetti, 2015-19Has not run for higher office
Juliana Stratton, 2019-presentHas not run for higher office
Tyrone Fahner, 1980-83Appointee, lost election for full term
Neil Hartigan, 1983-91Ran for Governor, lost
Roland Burris, 1991-95Ran for Governor, lost
Jim Ryan, 1995-2003Ran for Governor, lost
Lisa Madigan, 2003-19Has not run for higher office
Kwame Raoul, 2019-presentHas not run for higher office
Alan Dixon, 1977-81Ran for Senate, won
Jim Edgar, 1981-91Ran for Governor, won
George Ryan, 1991-99Ran for Governor, won
Jesse White, 1999-presentHas not run for higher office
Jerome Cosentino, 1979-83 and 1987-91Ran for Secretary of State, lost
James Donnewald, 1983-87Lost re-election
Pat Quinn, 1991-95Ran for Secretary of State, lost
Judy Baar Topinka, 1995-2007Ran for Governor, lost
Alexi Giannoulias, 2007-11Ran for Senate, lost
Dan Rutherford, 2011-15Ran for Governor, lost
Michael Frerichs, 2015-presentHas not run for higher office
Roland Burris, 1979-91Ran for Attorney General, won
Dawn Clark Netsch, 1991-95Ran for Governor, lost
Dan Hynes, 1999-2011Ran for Senate and Governor, lost both
Judy Baar Topinka, 2011-14Died in office
Jerry Stermer, 2014-15Appointee, served one month
Leslie Munger, 2015-16Appointee, lost election for remainder of term
Susana Mendoza, 2016-presentRan for mayor of Chicago, lost

Secretary of State is the best launching pad, another good reason White kept it out of the hands of grasping politicians for 24 years. Since every statewide officeholder looks in the mirror and sees a governor or senator, we may see a battle royal in 2026 if Sen. Dick Durbin decides to retire at age 82. All five may run to succeed him. Or they may run to succeed Gov. J.B. Pritzker, if he is re-elected this year and decides not to seek a third term. If history is our guide — and it usually is — they’re all going to run for an office more impressive than the one they now hold.