Friends in high places
For a farmer’s son from the tiny southern Illinois town of Cobden, Charles Joseph Wilkins’ success in academics, business, and politics is phenomenal. He has built a prestigious and lucrative career comprising all three fields.
At Sangamon State University, which became the University of Illinois at Springfield, Wilkins divided his time between teaching business-management courses and assisting the most powerful people at the university — first as faculty associate to the vice president for academic affairs and later as executive assistant to the school president, a post he held through 1988. University administrators waived the school’s policy requiring a doctorate for tenure and full professorship, granting Wilkins both despite the fact that his highest degree was a master of government.
Outside the university, Wilkins has long been active in politics, albeit mostly behind the scenes. The grandest office he ever bid for was chairmanship of the Sangamon County Democratic Party, a race he lost narrowly in 1986. Instead, he helped run the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon; Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan; Fred Lebed, in his bid for state comptroller; and Jerry Cosentino, in his campaign for secretary of state.
At Springfield City Hall, mayors of both political parties have given Wilkins, who lives in Pleasant Plains, influential positions in their administrations. In 1982, under Republican Mayor Mike Houston, Wilkins served as comptroller. In 1987, under Democratic Mayor Ossie Langfelder, Wilkins helped shape Springfield’s aldermanic form of government by training newly elected members. Both Republican Karen Hasara, elected mayor in 1995, and Democrat Tim Davlin, elected mayor in 2003, appointed Wilkins chairman of their transition committees. Both mayors also put Wilkins in charge of committees to select chiefs for the city’s police, fire, and utilities departments.
Although Wilkins retired from his university post, he remains active in the community. In the past few months, Davlin has appointed Wilkins to a new seven-member Veterans Advisory Council and to the Economic Development Council.
Although most of his City Hall work had been unpaid, he seemed poised to take on a key post at City Hall — director of hometown security — in 2003. The transition team he chaired created this directorship, and Wilkins drew up a résumé emphasizing his “extensive experience with Chemical, Biological and Nuclear weapons of mass destruction” and his “training and experience in demolition with C-4, Semtex and other specialized explosives.” When asked whether he was applying for the position he had created, he responded, “Hey, if you want to try to get me a job, go ahead!” Wilkins was considered by City Hall insiders to be the frontrunner for this job, but the City Council, facing a severe budget crunch, failed to fund it last year. This year, though, the council voted to fund a homeland security director at a salary of $80,600.
Wilkins’ state connections have been more lucrative. For four years, 1999-2003, he had a $40,000-per-year contract to advise the Secretary of State Police Department, in addition to $35,621 from White’s office in specific grants and contracts on which Wilkins served as project director. Since 1999, he has served as one of three paid members of the state comptroller’s Merit Commission, a panel that decides employment issues for the agency’s nonunion employees.
Fundraisers for the scholarship UIS established in Wilkins’ name bring out representatives from all of his power bases. The booklet promoting the scholarship contains glowing letters from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, former U.S. Sens. Gary Hart of Colorado and Alan Dixon, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Senate President Emil Jones, Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, and Comptroller Dan Hynes.
In August, Davlin and former Springfield Mayors Hasara, Langfelder, and Houston, along with the mayors of Jerome, Southern View, Chatham, and Sherman, co-chaired a reception at Pasfield House to raise funds for the Wilkins scholarship.