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Gauen: Metro East official wading into battle among millionaires for governor

Belleville News Democrat

Monday, February 27, 2017  |  Column  |  By Pat Gauen

Candidates--Statewide (12) , Governor (44)
Illinois, in arguably the worst financial condition of any state, will select nominees for governor in less than 13 months. I have to wonder whether the contenders should — as my parents’ generation used to say — have their heads examined.

I set off to Edwardsville a few days ago to examine one of those heads. It belongs to a familiar Metro East official who seems quite sane but also notably not rich in what may be shaping up as a war of personal wealth.

The fastest route put me on Governors Parkway, a relatively new connection between Interstate 55 and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville that was named to reflect the city’s pride as home to five governors. (None of those went to prison, if the question occurs to you.)

That count, by the way, includes Edward Coles, governor No. 2, and Ninian Edwards, No. 3, for whom Edwardsville is named. It generously includes others born there and moved elsewhere before getting elected, or who touched base along the way.

None was as deeply rooted in these parts as Robert Daiber, of the village of Marine, who is the fourth generation to farm his family’s land. He recently announced his candidacy for governor, in part, to make it a place where his two sons, both in college, will want to stay for generation five.

Daiber, 60, is the antitheses of the modern start-at-the-top political models of rich businessmen (President Donald Trump, Gov. Bruce Rauner). While they were making their millions, Daiber was practicing government from the bottom up as a village trustee, township supervisor and Madison County Board member.

The political perch from which he runs, regional school superintendent based in Edwardsville, is as much a progression of his career in education as politics. He is a mix of blue-collar pragmatism, with 28 years of teaching hands-on technology at Triad High School in Troy, Ill., and academic philosophy, with a doctorate in education.

His elected post, a mystery to probably most voters, oversees training and programs for local schools, supervises teacher licensing and handles myriad details that cross school district boundaries. The work is largely invisible to the public.

While Daiber is well short of a household name, his recent presidency of the regional superintendents’ association does provide a base of recognition in all 102 counties. He also has strong teacher union connections, having been president of Triad’s affiliate of the Illinois Education Association.

Running as a Democrat from Metro East does not provide the bounce it once did, given the county’s rightward shift in the electorate. And although the area has the second-largest concentration of people in Illinois, it rarely provides contenders for governor. It has been 45 years since Dan Walker’s surprise defeat of Troy’s Paul Simon in the 1972 Democratic primary.

To Daiber, re-railing the Illinois economic train means using long-term bonds to pay off the debt backlog, passing a balanced budget and fully funding priorities — such as education — while shedding what’s expendable.

Businesses, he insists, are looking for a state with a stable government that can provide reliable infrastructure and a skilled workforce. He sees Republican Rauner’s push for a “right-to-work” law as ideological union busting with no tangible benefit.

Salvation may mean a tax increase, Daiber said, and the budget could get swamped with fresh expenses if an overturn of the Affordable Care Act floods the state’s Medicaid program with people who can no longer get health insurance.

“We’re broke,” he said. “We’ve got to look at what we can afford and can’t afford. There’s a saying, ‘Let the good times roll.’ Well, the good times have rolled.”

Although it is daunting that Rauner put $50 million into his campaign fund in December, that’s a general election issue. Daiber’s immediate worry is the March 20, 2018, primary.

Chris Kennedy, a Chicago businessman and philanthropist — and son of the assassinated presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy — also has announced his candidacy for governor as a Democrat. And businessman J.B. Pritzker, worth an estimated $3.4 billion, is among those said to be thinking about it.

Daiber, whose salary is something over $110,000, and whose wife, Karen, is a nursing home hairdresser, jump-started his campaign with $20,000 out of pocket. He figures that he may be able to raise up to $3 million for the primary — enough, with frugal spending, to put his common sense message across.

It seems like a lot of money until you consider that Rauner’s campaign spent $65 million to get him elected in 2014 to a job that at its current salary wouldn’t pay that much in more than 360 years.

Maybe we all need to get our heads examined.