On the steps of the Kankakee County Courthouse where his 35 years in public office began, Gov. George Ryan on Wednesday formally declared he would not seek the Republican nomination for a second term and lashed back at his conservative critics.
Ryan's move set in motion a scramble among potential Republican candidates as the governor issued a warning that his political party was endangered by catering to what he called the "hard right wing."
"I can take the heat," said Ryan, whose political ideology shifted from conservative to moderate as he achieved higher office, eventually encompassing support for gun control, homosexual rights and public funding of abortions for poor women.
"But I worry for the Republican Party-the party of Lincoln under whose banner I have proudly served all of my life. If we're to be successful, we need to listen more and shout less. We need to moderate our positions," he said.
"I learned a long time ago that winning public office is about addition and not subtraction, and I would hope that the party folks are listening," he said.
Republican leaders, including state GOP Chairman Rich Williamson, former Gov. James R. Thompson, state Senate President James "Pate" Philip and state House Minority leader Lee Daniels, all praised Ryan's progressive leadership during his 31 months as governor.
But many GOP officials said privately they were relieved when Ryan revealed his decision not to run at the end of a 31-minute speech, particularly since most of them had urged the politically vulnerable governor not to seek re-election.
Ryan aides said privately that after weeks of consideration the governor made his decision late Tuesday in the Executive Mansion in Springfield. But he did not inform his senior staff what he had decided until 2 p.m. Wednesday, as they boarded a state plane from Springfield to Kankakee.
"Believe me, he anguished over it," said Scott Fawell, Ryan's 1998 campaign manager who now heads the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. "He loves the job. It's a tough job to leave."
Addressing hundreds of state workers, Cabinet department directors, lawmakers, lobbyists, party officials and hometown friends who sat in the sweltering heat on the courthouse square, the governor issued a staunch defense of the controversial moves he had taken as Illinois chief executive.
"We tackled these challenges not because they were easy, but because they were hard," Ryan said. But he never addressed the licenses-for-bribes scandal that took place during his previous tenure as secretary of state, or the steady drumbeat of federal indictments of his former employees that followed him into the governor's office and clouded voter confidence.
In the end, the continuing convictions in the federal Operation Safe Road investigation only made it easier for critics to attack Ryan for controversial moves such as raising taxes and fees to pay for his massive sweeping Illinois FIRST public works program.
Ryan aides said the scandal played no role in his decision. But state Senate Democratic leader Emil Jones Jr. of Chicago, who termed Ryan a "very courageous governor," said there was little doubt in his mind the scandal was an overriding factor in the decision not to run.
"Had not it been for the previous administration of the secretary of state's office, he would have run for re-election, and he would have been a very formidable candidate," Jones said. "No question about that."
Still, the governor acknowledged he had become a flashpoint for controversy that would only intensify in a bitter election campaign. He said the challenges the state faces "require serious debate, a dialogue free from rancor or personal attacks about motives or character."
"And that's why the governorship should not become mired in the political divisions of a campaign year," Ryan said. "And that's why over the next 17 months I will . . . devote every ounce of my abilities to the challenges that Illinois faces and the duties of higher office that you've hired me to do.
"And that's why I will not be a candidate for Republican nomination for governor in the year 2002."
Ryan boldly took on his conservative Republican critics who had derided him on a variety of social and fiscal positions, including a visit to Cuba in hopes of easing the U.S. trade embargo with the Communist-led nation.
"People of Illinois want to reach out for their neighbors. They want new markets for their farmers, not outdated ideology. They want compassion for the poor. And I learned a long time ago that winning public office is about addition and not subtraction, and I would hope that the party folks are listening," he said.
His warning prompted more criticism from party conservatives. Fran Eaton of Oak Forest, president of Eagle Forum of Illinois, said she was "just stunned when I heard his angry, negative remarks made towards the people who are the heart and soul of Illinois."
"Perhaps it was the right decision not to run again," she added.
But others in the GOP establishment said they supported Ryan's call for moderation.
Philip, a Wood Dale resident who also is the DuPage County Republican chairman and a longtime conservative, said Ryan's portrayal of the party's right wing was "probably fairly accurate."
"We shouldn't deny anybody (access to the party)," Philip said. "But there are certain things we ought to stand by and be for."
Thompson, a mentor who tapped Ryan for lieutenant governor, said the incumbent governor's message is important for whoever becomes the Republican nominee.
"I think it was a warning to the whole party-not just the conservative wing," Thompson said. "And he's absolutely right. The way Republicans get elected in the state of Illinois is to reflect the views of the majority of the people of this state and listen to every voice."
Some Republicans in the audience, who acknowledged Ryan's criticism of the right, noted the governor said he was not seeking the GOP nomination for governor-potentially leaving the door open to an independent bid after the March 2002 major party nominees are decided.
In his address, Ryan pointedly thanked Republican Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, a social moderate who is considering a bid for governor, as well as GOP Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, who is evaluating her options for 2002.
But Ryan, however, made no mention of Republican Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, who is scheduled to announce his bid for the GOP's party's gubernatorial nomination on Thursday. The governor and attorney general are not related.
The governor has made little secret of his unhappiness with the attorney general's attempt to push him into a quick decision on his political future. Jim Ryan did not attend the governor's announcement, and aides said the attorney general was not invited to participate.
And although Jim Ryan hails from DuPage County, Philip declined to give him an early endorsement for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, saying he wanted to see "who the candidates are."
A spokesman for the attorney general issued a short statement saying Jim Ryan "knows this was a difficult decision for the governor and his family, and he wishes them well."
State Sen. Patrick O'Malley of Palos Park, who draws support from the conservative wing the governor criticized, already has announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination.
Regardless of Ryan's decision, a host of potential Democrats have begun lining up for the party's gubernatorial nomination, believing the incumbent governor's troubles have left the Republican Party the most vulnerable it has been since the GOP took hold of the governor's office in the 1976 election.
Mayor Richard Daley, who all but endorsed George Ryan for re-election a few weeks ago, said he understood and respected the governor's decision.
"I've said on several occasions, George Ryan has been a very good governor. Thanks to his leadership, Chicago-and all of Illinois-are rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure through the Illinois FIRST program and making great advances in economic development and world trade," Daley said in a statement.
But U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., who frequently clashed with Ryan and even suggested he would run if the governor sought re-election, issued a terse statement.
"The senator believes the governor made a smart choice," his spokesman said. "He believes the decision was in the best interest of the people of Illinois."
Ryan made his announcement surrounded by his wife, Lura Lynn, his six children and 14 grandchildren. The courthouse was decorated in a campaign-style, with signs from his 1998 gubernatorial bid and red, white and blue balloons. Guests were given free hot dogs and soda pop.
Chicago Tribune correspondents Douglas Holt and Christi Parsons contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times