Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White is applauded by Mariyana Spyropoulos commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chcago, left, and other officials as he announces his bid for a fifth term in office, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, in Chicago. So far, White faces no opponents. He was first elected to the office in 1998. In 2010 he received the most votes of any candidate seeking public office since 1978. (AP Photo / M. Spencer Green)
CHICAGO (AP) — While the official re-election bid of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White came as no surprise Thursday, the Chicago Democrat who routinely sets records for support at the polls suggested it may be his last term in office.
It's not the first time the 79-year-old who won all of Illinois' 102 counties in 2002 has hinted he's winding down. His current term was to be his last until he reversed course and announced in 2011 that he'd seek a fifth. A year earlier he had received more than 2.5 million votes, the most for any candidate seeking public office in Illinois since the late 1970s.
"This may be my last tour of duty," White, an Army veteran and longtime former lawmaker, said Thursday at a downtown Chicago hotel.
White has managed to occupy an unusual space in Illinois politics: He's looked up to as an elder statesman in his own party, maintained a mostly clean reputation, is well-liked even by Republicans and has built decades of good will with his gymnastics organization to help underprivileged children. Yet when it comes to the state's major issues — the worst-funded pension system in the nation and billions in unpaid bills — he's stayed out of the fray.
White indicated Thursday he has no plans to change that.
"They have their job before them; I dare not step on their turf," he said of state lawmakers. "They know what the lay of the land is."
Perhaps the only stain on his record is the fallout from indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith. He once held a job in White's administration and was later appointed as representative to fill a vacancy by White and other party officials. However, once Smith's bribery charges became known last year, White said he'd made a mistake in backing Smith and led efforts to remove him from office. Smith, who's denied wrongdoing, was expelled, but voters later put him back.
White said he doesn't think the incident reflects poorly on him.
"The authorities are going to deal with him," White said. "I thought he was a person of good character. We appointed him and he let us down."
White made his kickoff speech Thursday surrounded by some of Chicago's most prominent Democrats, including Cook County Commissioner John Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who praised White's service to children and credited him with overhauling the formerly scandal-plagued office.
"Everybody is here because everyone wants to be with a winner," Chicago Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. told attendees. "He's the most popular guy in the state of Illinois."
White was first elected secretary of state in 1998, and when he took over, the office had a dismal reputation. His predecessor was former Gov. George Ryan, a Republican who recently finished his federal prison sentence for conspiracy and other charges, stemming in part from alleged activities while he was secretary of state.
White's office, which runs drivers' services for Illinois, oversees more than 3,500 employees. He's credited with helping crack down on intoxicated drivers and advocating for safe driving legislation.
With no opponents in sight, White is expected to easily win re-election next year. Republican officials have said they're considering candidates but acknowledge that it would be a tough fight. Still, White wants his party's official nod and plans to attend discussions by the state's Democratic Party officials later this month to slate candidates for statewide office.
He will be 80 when the campaign ramps up next year, and Thursday's event was peppered with good-natured jokes about his age.
To any notion that he might be too old to serve, White simply pointed out that he's got the energy and can prove it. He still performs with his Jesse White Tumbling Team, an organization he founded for children from housing projects in 1959. That includes handstands.
He said: "I'm just as young as my tumblers."