More than a decade after leaving public office, his political star fallen, Alexi Giannoulias landed the Democratic nomination for Illinois secretary of state Tuesday night, the culmination of a heated primary that pitted him against a new up-and-comer in the party.
Giannoulias declared victory over his top challenger, Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, a notable comeback for someone who served one term as Illinois treasurer, failed to parlay that into a U.S. Senate seat and then mostly bowed out of the public eye.
Not even the endorsement of retiring Secretary of State Jesse White — long one of Illinois’ most prolific vote-getters — could put Valencia over the top in a race that forced the state’s most powerful Dems to pick sides. She conceded late Tuesday.
Addressing more than a hundred supporters at a Streeterville hotel, Giannoulias said “we’re on a journey, a journey to restore trust in government to strengthen our democracy to make Illinois better.”
“I told you all that I wasn’t running to be something, but to do something — to make Illinois a great example for the rest of this country,” he said.
With 80% of precincts reporting, Giannoulias had 53.1% of the vote to 33.9% for Valencia and 9.1% for South Side Ald. David Moore (17th). A fourth candidate, Homewood nonprofit worker Sidney Moore, was netting 3.9%.
The secretary of state’s race marked the only statewide Democratic primary contest in this year’s election without an incumbent, as the wildly popular White steps down after an unprecedented six terms.
The win marked Giannoulias’ first since 2007, when the then-30-year-old Democratic prodigy was elected state treasurer — the youngest person to win that post anywhere in the nation, according to his campaign.
That meteoric political rise fell back to earth in 2010 with his failed bid for the U.S. Senate seat previously held by his pickup basketball buddy Barack Obama. Giannoulias won the Democratic primary but lost to Mark Kirk in a tight electoral battle that tilted to the Republican candidate after Giannoulias’ family bank went under.
The Broadway Bank failure ended up costing the Federal Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. more than $383 million. Investigators found the bank handed out loans to people with alleged links to organized crime.
Giannoulias, who served as a senior loan officer, was never accused of wrongdoing, but the controversy helped tank his Senate campaign — and Valencia tried her best to use it to sink his latest run.
But ethical concerns clouded her own bid, as she acknowledged “an honest mistake” in failing to report her husband’s lobbying business on her required city disclosures as city clerk.
Through a grueling yearlong campaign, Valencia could not shed the questions about hundreds of emails sent from her city account about her husband’s business — and whether her family got a financial boost thanks to her City Hall clout.
Valencia said she wished she had been “more careful with the mixing of my personal and professional emails.”
Both the top candidates raised major cash for the race: more than $4 million for Giannoulias and $1 million for Valencia by the end of March, with hundreds of thousands more rolling in since then.
Both Valencia and Giannoulias used that money to capitalize on hot-button political issues in their messaging, regardless of whether they were germane to leading an office responsible for driver services and a hodgepodge of state record-keeping.
Valencia, who has held her clerk post since she was appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2017 and then won a full term in 2019, tried to tie Giannoulias to former President Donald Trump because of an op-ed the former state treasurer wrote calling for unity after the 2016 election. Valencia also slammed Giannoulias for supporting a Republican in the 2014 treasurer’s race.
Giannoulias, meanwhile, campaigned with a vow to “protect our elections,” even though the secretary of state’s office has nothing to do with election processes.
Giannoulias will enter the November general election as the favorite over the Republican nominee, state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, as well as downstate Libertarian candidate Jesse White — no relation to the retiring secretary of state.
Mitchell Armentrout is a staff reporter. Maria Gardner Lara is a freelance reporter.