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Birkett to make second bid for state's attorney general
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff

DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett


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Published: 7/2/2009 3:16 PM | Updated: 7/2/2009 5:03 PM

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DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett plans to run for Illinois attorney general in 2010 - even if incumbent Lisa Madigan seeks a third term.

Birkett made the announcement Thursday during an interview with the Daily Herald.

Madigan is expected to declare in two to four weeks whether she'll run for U.S. Senate, governor or to retain her current seat. Birkett, meanwhile, said the attorney general position is his best fit, regardless of whom he faces on Election Day.

So far, no one else has officially declared for the post. It's Birkett's third attempt at statewide office and his second for attorney general.

"You have to be who you are," the 54-year-old Wheaton man said. "I'm a prosecutor. I've come to the conclusion I should remain one. That's where I belong. It's my passion."

Birkett, who was elected last November to his fourth 4-year term as DuPage County state's attorney, is one of Illinois' best-recognized prosecutors after a 30-year career.

But he has been unsuccessful in his previous runs for statewide office.

In 2002, his first attempt, the Republican lost to Madigan in the most expensive race for attorney general in Illinois history. The Chicago Democrat defeated Birkett by about 2.5 percentage points. Birkett won 87 of Illinois' 102 counties but Madigan, who outspent him 3 to 1, trounced him in Chicago.

In the process, Birkett gained name recognition outside DuPage County. He left the campaign saddled with more than $700,000 in debt, but wiped that out in the November 2006 election, when he unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor on the GOP slate with gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka.

Birkett unofficially began his 2010 campaign for either attorney general or governor last spring, when he first told the Daily Herald he was exploring a possible run. Meanwhile, DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom announced his gubernatorial bid last month.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican and former head of the DuPage GOP, said he will formally announce his bid for governor next week.

Birkett said his DuPage County colleagues' campaigns did not factor into his decision.

He long toyed with a gubernatorial run. In 2004, he began touring the state trying to line up financial and political support, but he joined Topinka at the urging of party leaders, including former Gov. Jim Edgar, one of Birkett's mentors.

The prosecutor said his decision to run for attorney general as opposed to governor has a lot to do with time. Or, in his case, the lack thereof.

He is the lead prosecutor in the September trial of Brian J. Dugan, who is accused of abducting, raping and murdering 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in an infamous 1983 slaying that sent two men to death row before they eventually were exonerated.

"I want to try this case," Birkett said. "The importance of this case is going to take precedence over politics."

Many political strategists argue Birkett's conservative views work against him. The staunch Roman Catholic is pro-death penalty, but he has pioneered many reforms to overhaul the system. He is generally anti-abortion, but he supports it in cases of sexual assaults. Birkett grew up in the poor Austin neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. His mother was a Democrat; his father a Republican. Three of his brothers are in the trades, including a carpenter and electrician, professions that usually favor Democrats.

At 13, he lost his father in a boating accident and watched his mother struggle to raise nine children. An impaired motorist later killed one of his brothers.

Birkett claims credit for about 120 tough-on-crime bills passed into law in the mostly Democrat-controlled state legislature.

For years, Birkett has lambasted now-indicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich for so-called pay-to-play politics.

Birkett hasn't changed his tune much. He pledged to use the attorney general's office as a vehicle to fight corruption, financial crimes, gangs, Medicaid fraud, corporate and public contractor fraud, and to bolster training, federal funding and partnerships among police, prosecutors and schools.

"I don't measure success by conviction rates," Birkett said. "I measure it by the quality of life in a community, the safety rate, the crime rate, the murder rate, and to seek justice in each individual case. You treat every case with the same importance you would if it involved your own family and, if you do that, you don't have to worry about conviction rates."

He'll officially announce his election bid in the coming weeks and will continue to try to broaden his appeal in Chicago and suburban Cook County, including the Northwest suburbs, which are turning increasingly Democratic after decades of being a rock-solid Republican bastion.