Friends to Ryan: Don't Run While George Ryan Takes Time This Summer to Decide Whether to Seek a Second Term, Top Advisers Say He Has Done What He Wanted to Do and Should Retire to Spare His Family a Brutal Campaign

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Byline: Eric Krol Daily Herald Political Writer

There's a giant question dominating Illinois Republican politics this summer, and how it is answered could change the face of state government for the next four years.

Should Gov. George Ryan run again?

The Daily Herald asked six of the governor's closest advisers last week, and five of them said no. Only three would allow their names to be used in connection with their comments.

Their thinking goes like this: The governor already has accomplished much of what he set out to do, but opinion polls show the public holds Ryan in low esteem, largely due to charges that while secretary of state his office sold driver's licenses for campaign contributions. Ryan has not been accused of wrongdoing.

But that leaves little reason for Ryan to put his family and party through a brutal campaign, especially with the possibility of new indictments at any time.

"If he asked me, I would end up saying, 'George, on the basis of your record, there is no doubt you deserve a second term,' " said Pete Peters, a longtime Ryan friend, adviser and former state legislator from Chicago. "But the defeat may end up coming because of a campaign not on the issues, but one against you and your family.

"This is the thing that if I were him, I'd have to be weighing: Is there a fair shake in the campaign, or does he (Ryan) end up with commercials that say 'I killed six kids' over and over again?" said Peters, referring to the six children of the Rev. Duane and Janet Willis who died in a fiery 1994 accident involving a truck driver who paid a bribe to get his license.

Each of the advisers was quick to point out that ultimately, it's Ryan's decision to make. In recent weeks, the governor has grown irritated with repeated questions about his future, saying he plans to take the summer to decide whether he'll stand for re- election and will announce his decision around Labor Day. On Friday, Ryan spokesman Dennis Culloton said that continues to be the case.

So Ryan will spend the next six weeks meeting with family, friends and advisers at the governor's mansion in Springfield, his Chicago office and his Kankakee home.

What he'll weigh

Donald Udsteun, another longtime Ryan friend and unofficial adviser, said Ryan definitely should reflect on his accomplishments. In just 2 1/2 years, Ryan has provided a record $1.5 billion more to education, rebuilt hundreds of crumbling roads, bridges and sewer pipes, and offered taxpayers income and gas tax relief, if only temporarily.

But the governor also has been criticized for cutting insider deals to put a casino in Rosemont and to protect clout-heavy liquor distributors.

"There is some criticism George is a dealmaker. But when you look at his campaign ads, that's what he said he would do. He said, I'm going to bring people together and get things done," said Udsteun, a lobbyist for Illinois' doctors.

Peters points out that Ryan has grown while in office, transforming from a conservative Republican from small-town Kankakee to a politician who's taken "courageous" stands in support of gay rights, a death penalty moratorium and increased spending on social services.

Still, the licenses-for-bribes scandal hangs over the Ryan administration, leaving skeptical voters questioning whether Ryan knew about the at least $170,000 in bribes that federal prosecutors say made it into his campaign fund, and wondering if he didn't know, was he asleep at the wheel.

"I would say, look, I sat in the secretary of state office. My administrative style has never been 'I'll stick my nose into every piece of business that goes on,' " Peters said. "If there's one thing that can be said about George, it's his problem is not of commission. You might make an argument it's one of omission.

"Whether that story ever gets out and whether people will accept it, I don't know. …