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Thursday, March 17, 2005 02:27 pm

Return to grace

Dan Hynes was once the brightest of Illinois’ young political stars. After Hynes won his first statewide race for Illinois comptroller in 1998, the 30-year-old Democrat’s future looked limitless. Hynes was the youngest person elected to a statewide constitutional office since World War II — his father’s long service in politics helping automatically smooth relations with other powerful people — and his first term went smoothly. Hynes proved an able administrator who didn’t run away from a worthwhile fight.

Pretty much everybody figured that Hynes would move up fast, but 2002 set him back. Lisa Madigan, the daughter of House Speaker Michael Madigan, was clouted into the attorney general’s race, bypassing Hynes, the son of a former Senate president. Hynes could either run for governor or run for re-election. His friends and others, including me, advised him to run for re-election.

“Remember what happened to Pat Quinn,” many of us said. Quinn tried to move up to secretary of state in 1994 instead of running for an almost sure-bet re-election for state treasurer. His loss to George Ryan forced Quinn out of state office for eight long years.

Hynes took the safe route and ran for a second term instead of reaching for the gold ring. He got bad advice: If he wanted the job, he should have gone for it.

The comptroller was easily re-elected in 2002, but now he was boxed in. Democrats controlled all of the jobs above him for the foreseeable future — governor, attorney general, and secretary of state — and Hynes’ star was starting to look dim. The comptroller’s office isn’t a bad job, but nobody wants to be comptroller for life. You can’t win an Academy Award if you only act in TV commercials.

Hynes looked like the frontrunner when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004. His two huge statewide wins earned him lots of friends and allies all over the state; his father’s connections as a Chicago ward committeeman and longtime political leader meant he would have plenty of contributions and more than enough precinct workers; and he had built a strong organization of his own, fueled by the energy and money of thousands of young Democrats, particularly in the Chicago area.

But with all of that going for him, Hynes still ran a terrible race. It seemed at times as if he hadn’t really thought about why he wanted the Senate seat, other than the fact that it was a huge job promotion. And, of course, he was steamrolled by the greatest political phenomenon that Illinois, and the country for that matter, had seen in decades — Barack Obama.

That ’04 primary loss to Obama could have damaged Hynes forever. Losing exposes weakness, and an appearance of weakness attracts the sharks.

After lying low for a while, Hynes is starting to come back. He began his return to grace by unveiling a proposal for a statewide referendum to fund stem-cell research in Illinois. The unique and creative idea has earned him widespread praise.

A couple of weeks ago, Hynes earned more applause when he demanded a fundamental reform of the state’s campaign-finance laws.

Since the dawn of time, statewide politicians have raised money from the companies that do business with their offices. But Gov. Rod Blagojevich has taken this to a new level, turning the craft into an art form. The media has been all over the issue for the past couple of months, hammering the governor at every turn for raising obscene amounts of money from companies that do business with the state.

Hynes was disgusted at what he read and decided that somebody needed to do something about it — so he proposed a ban on all contractor and vendor contributions and, in the spirit of true reform, issued an executive order that immediately applied the new rule to his own office. Hynes will no longer take money from any company that contracts with his office.

Predictably, the governor balked at following Hynes’ lead.

Nobody knows what the future will bring. But I think Dan Hynes will be OK. He’s recovering his voice and showing that the loss to Obama hasn’t dampened his spirits. I don’t know where or how he will move up the ladder, but I’m more confident every day that he will.

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