Alexi Giannoulias, State Treasurer in the crossfire
by Norm Winick
At age 32, Alexi Giannoulias is the youngest statewide elected official in the nation. And he’s also surrounded by and expected to work with political leaders of the state who aren’t talking to him — or each other. Add to that confusion his long-time association with his close friend and mentor, Barack Obama, and you’ve got a Treasurer who’s been keeping extremely busy.
He was in Galesburg Tuesday on a trip through western and central Illinois to promote two initiatives of his office, a plan to cut interest rates for environmentally-friendly businesses and another to help homeowners facing foreclosure an opportunity to refinance their mortgages.
Giannoulias won the 2006 Democratic primary for State Treasurer by defeating Knox County State’s Attorney Paul Mangieri who had the endorsement of the democratic Party and most of the major political figures in the state — save one, Senator Barack Obama. Obama endorsed an unknown Chicago banker, Alexi Giannoulias, and he went on to victory. I sat down with him at McGillicuddy’s on S. Cherry St. Giannoulias sees Barack often and joins him on the basketball court frequently — including just this last weekend. “He my mentor and a close friend. He opened up a lot of doors for me.”
With his good friend a little busy on the national scene, Giannoulias is on the front lines of the budget battles in Springfield. While he tried to make nice with Governor Rod Blagojevich early in his term, Giannoulias and the Governor haven’t been communicating much lately. “I wouldn’t say I’ve ‘split’ with the governor but I would say we’ve been disagreeing on a lot of issues. I think he’s had several bad ideas and not shown the leadership he should. I still respect my role as Treasurer and his role as Governor.” You would think that the Governor and his financial advisors would be in constant discussions with the State Treasurer’s office about financial matters and budget issues. That’s not the case. “He never called my office for advise or consultation at any time.” The Governor’s used his veto pen to slash all the statewide officials’ budgets and the Treasurer’s office is not exempt. Giannoulias says that he doesn’t know how that will play out. “We’re still trying to figure out what we’re going to cut. What bothers me is the appearance that so many of the cuts were made out of vengeance or vendetta.”
Giannoulias says he’s proud of what he has accomplished in his short time in office. “We’ve made some major changes in my office and we’re proud of that. One of the most publicized action was finally unloading two hotels the state financed in a sweetheart deal over 20 years ago. “Those hotels were the worst deals I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t easy to get that resolved. None of the Treasurers before me had been able to. They were a fiasco that was compounded by bad loans, political insider deals, and ethical problems at many levels.”
“I am also proud of what we’ve done with the Bright Start College Savings Program. I brought in a new fund manager, tripled portfolio options and cut fees by one-half. It’s the most inexpensive plan in the country. We were ranked 49th out of the 50 states when I came into the office, now our plan is one of the top five in the nation with $2.7 billion invested and helping 162,000 families. “ Giannoulias realizes that the state, like many others, is facing difficult times. “The economy is creating havoc throughout the state of Illinois. Costs, especially fuel and food, are skyrocketing; unemployment and foreclosures are on the rise; wages are stagnant.”
“My office tries to help people in ways that we can without putting any of the state funds at risk. We are offering incentives to business owners to retrofit their facilities to make them more energy efficient. We are offering guarantees on 10 percent down payments for first-time homebuyers or homeowners trying to refinance to avoid foreclosure.: Giannoulias says Illinois had not invested in asset-backed securities and the state’s investment portfolio was one of only a few in the nation not impacted by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. “Not only is our portfolio secure, we have outperformed our investment benchmark every single month I’ve been in office.”
He says that his experience in the private sector (as a banker) was invaluable to his service as State Treasurer. “I think that perspective is amazingly helpful and not shared by a lot of state officials. I know what a budget is and how to streamline operations and make them more efficient. I’m willing to look at new ideas. Just recently, we discussed offering the state’s unclaimed property for sale on eBay.
As a statewide elected official, Giannoulias is in the middle of the political maneuvering that permeates Springfield and Chicago. He’s still unsure whether recall would be a good idea. “People should pay attention to who they are voting for. I’m also afraid that recall could keep officials from taking chances or making correct but unpopular decisions. There’s a real lack of courage being displayed now and having recall might make it even worse.”
He does think that a constitutional convention where recall and other major changes are discussed would probably be good for the state. A referendum on having such a convention is on the November statewide ballot and the battle lines are just being drawn.
When I asked what people didn’t know about him, Giannoulias said that most folks didn’t realize he was a professional basketball player in Europe after graduating from Boston College.
State Treasurer is probably not Giannoulias’ top rung on his political ladder. He says that he has not thought about filling the Senate seat that may open up if his good friend becomes President. But he has thought about seeking the Governor’s office. “A lot of people have approached me — people who see how Barack has changed the landscape of Illinois politics and the benefits of new leadership in the state with new energy and new ideas. There’s a new wave of capable, intelligent people in state government and I think I could be successful leading them.”
If he decides to seek the state’s top post, he’ll be vying with other well-known individuals with similar aspirations. Giannoulias has some friends in some pretty high places.