SPRINGFIELD — The nameplate on the desk of Alexi Giannoulias’ ballroom-like office in the Illinois State Capitol reads “Illegitimi non carborundum.”
It’s a pseudo-Latin term often translated as “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” a motto to which Illinois’ new secretary of state, who has experienced the highs and lows of a political career, said he subscribes.
As an elected official, he has learned that even if you try to do the right thing, “everyone in politics has people who may not agree with you,” he said in an interview.
After becoming the nation’s youngest state treasurer and the first Illinois Democrat in more than a decade to hold the office in 2007, Giannoulias narrowly lost a bid for former President Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat in 2010.
Twelve years of exile from electoral politics followed. Now 46, he sits in the spacious Springfield office previously occupied for 24 years by Jesse White, overseeing more than 4,000 employees in a department that arguably has the most interaction with the public of any state agency.
Giannoulias’ goals for his first 100 days in office and beyond are laid out in a report compiled with the help of a transition team comprising business and civic leaders, including elected officials. Some 800 surveys filled out by citizens through his campaign website were also used to assemble the report.
Those surveys produced a blunt assessment of how the office is seen around the state. There were criticisms of long wait times for secretary of state services, different standards of service at driver’s services facilities, and difficulties in finding out basic information about services the office provides.
“When the people of Illinois interact with our Office, they develop immediate perceptions of their experience. Were they greeted with a warm welcome? Were they able to get their questions answered? Was the process quick and efficient?” the report notes. “Was accessing the service — physically or virtually — easy to do? For too many Illinoisans, the answer to these questions has been a ‘no.’”
The secretary of state’s office oversees driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, keeps track of business and lobbying registrations, maintains an organ and tissue donation registry and provides support for public libraries, among other services.
Some of the goals laid out in the report were similar to those Giannoulias emphasized during his campaign, particularly his promise to modernize the office through technology. The survey said residents want upgrades in that area, which Giannoulias said came as no surprise.
“We were campaigning for like two years. And the first six months of it was COVID, so we were on Zooms every night, like every day, every night, talking to voters, talking to donors, talking to community groups, taking to county chairs, talking to good government groups,” Giannoulias said. “So during the course of three and four Zooms every single night, you get a feel for what people care about.”
In the interview, Giannoulias reiterated his plans to issue digital driver’s licenses and IDs, and to develop strategies to streamline the customer experience.
The report lists “seven commitments,” and among them is a promise that Giannoulias will conduct a statewide listening tour for the public at driver’s services facilities, libraries and voter registration sites. The report also said secretary of state officials will hold regular town hall meetings.
The report said people have asked for more organ and tissue donation sign-up locations, more pop-up voter registration sites, more vehicle services kiosks and more support services for libraries such as “a wider array of digital resources like e-books and databases that increase access to information.”
The report also said the Giannoulias administration will, in the short term, audit secretary of state facilities to see what improvements need to be made, such as providing more parking for people with disabilities.
Given that the secretary of state’s office also tracks business registrations in the state, the Giannoulias administration will launch a video series to connect business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs to state resources.
One of Giannoulias’ first acts was an executive order mandating ethics policies that include additional training requirements for the secretary of state’s inspector general’s office. The order also calls for an inspector general email account on the secretary of state website to make it easier for employees and the public to file complaints, and a review of how the office’s vehicles are used to ensure they’re only being driven for state business purposes.
The secretary of state’s office endured a number of scandals during the tenure of George Ryan, who went on to become governor before being sent to prison on corruption charges. And while Giannoulias’ transition team identified no misdeeds during White’s time in office, he said he wants to ensure there’s “not even a semblance of pay-to-play politics.”
”He had a great reputation, had a great inspector general,” Giannoulias said of White. “We want to make sure that anything that was prohibited or not allowed, we want to codify it.”
In his campaign, Giannoulias proposed banning spouses from lobbying their significant others’ offices, blocking politicians from receiving money from people who work for them and curtailing unregistered lobbying.
His talking point about lobbying reforms arose during his contentious primary election campaign against Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, when the two candidates frequently sparred over each other’s alleged ethical shortcomings.
Since the election, Giannoulias has vowed to make tighter lobbying regulations a focus during his transition into his new role.
“You can be the best person in the world. To pretend that conversations aren’t had (with) the spouse is like, to me it’s very difficult to do,” he said in the interview. “I also, one of the other things that has blown my mind is you can serve as an elected official but still lobby.”
After ending his single term as treasurer, Giannoulias spent several years working at a large bank corporation, owning a stake in restaurants and serving on various boards. He thinks his time in the private sector during the intervening years can serve a purpose in his new role.
“To have both those experiences, I think, is meaningful,” he said. “It gives you perspective on both.”
At the Capitol, Giannoulias will work out of the secretary of state’s airy office, which has a conference table and other furniture and a piano left behind by White’s administration. It’s the largest office in the Capitol, bigger even than the governor’s office, a perk granted to the secretary of state because the office runs the facilities management and security functions in the statehouse.
Aside from the Latin nameplate, Giannoulias has put his own signature on the room by putting a number of basketballs on display to show his love for the sport, as a college player and as a pickup basketball buddy to Obama. One is the game ball from a pickup game he and Obama played at a Chicago gymnasium on the day Obama was elected president in 2008.
“My 5-year-old daughter asked if this was my new home because she couldn’t believe how big the office was,” Giannoulias said. “The office is ridiculously large. We thought the treasurer’s office (at the Capitol) was like the holy grail.”