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updated: 10/16/2010 10:23 PM

Big Brady question: Is he ready to lead Illinois?

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  • Bill Brady

    Bill Brady
    Associated Press

Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Bill Brady believes being a good legislator doesn't necessarily require passing lots of legislation.

For 15 years, the Republican candidate for Illinois governor has followed a less-is-more philosophy at the state Capitol. He hasn't pushed sweeping legislative schemes. He rarely introduces bills promising to cure the latest headline-grabbing problem.

The result is a legislative record that offers voters little help judging whether Brady, 49, is prepared to run a state government struggling with the largest budget deficit in Illinois history.

Brady, a Bloomington high school football star who married his college sweetheart and went into the family business before entering local politics, now wants to be the state's chief executive. It wouldn't be his first time facing a financial crisis.

Twenty-five years ago, his father's construction business went bankrupt. Brady and his brothers stepped in to help, eventually putting it on sound footing and turning it into one of the largest home-builders in central Illinois.

Today, the company is struggling again as the recession takes its toll. The Brady family real estate firm has laid off about half its employees. Their construction business cut staff by two-thirds.

Brady plays down questions about whether he's prepared to govern Illinois. He says what Illinois needs in a governor is the right mix of useful experience and sound policies in this case, someone who knows business and is committed to holding taxes down.

"There are some jobs you never prove (you're ready for) until you've done it," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

His rival, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, scoffs at the idea that Brady is ready to be governor.

"I have a record of accomplishment," Quinn said recently. "He talks about great things, but he doesn't deliver when it comes to the actual record."

The record shows that Brady has spent most of his time in Springfield trying to fine-tune the laws on a few select topics, particularly insurance a reflection of Brady representing Bloomington, the headquarters for at least two insurance companies.

People who have worked with him say Brady doesn't believe a new law is the answer to every new problem. They describe him as a firm believer in the idea that the best way to help Illinois families is to help business grow and create new jobs.

"I don't think he would put the needs of business ahead of the needs of college students, the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, but I think he does have a clear focus that if there are no jobs he's not going to meet those needs anyway," said Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican who is retiring this year.

Brady helped pass legislation letting banks sell insurance. He pushed to bar companies from denying coverage to domestic-violence victims and to let them sell stripped-down policies that offered little coverage.

Denny Jacobs is now an insurance lobbyist but used to be a Democratic legislator and chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee. He recalls being able to work well with Brady, who was generally open to compromises with the Democratic majority.

"Of course, we had the gavel so he had to be in a position to compromise," Jacobs said.

Jacobs added that he and Brady generally opposed requiring insurance companies to offer specific types of coverage because they drive up costs.

Jim Duffett, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Better Health Care, said Brady is consistently on the side of insurance companies. He particularly criticizes Brady's efforts to allow bare-bones insurance policies. Duffett called them "snake-oil plans" that offer consumers almost nothing for their money.

Brady's work in Springfield also reflects his experience as a real estate developer. He has worked to standardize building codes, spell out requirements for home mortgages and settle such mundane issues as the rules for installing home sprinkler systems.

Several people described him as a legislator who listens to the other side and asks sharp questions about proposals including whether government really needs to take any action at all.

"He generally looks at it not from 'How can government solve this?' but 'Why should government be involved in this?"' said lobbyist Zack Stamp.

One area where Brady has displayed a more activist streak is on conservative social issues.

He has backed legislation allowing discrimination against gay people by groups with religious affiliations, barring any state involvement in embryonic stem cell research, letting pharmacists refuse to dispense emergency contraception and banning civil unions between gay couples.

None of the measures became law. In fact, relatively few of Brady's bills have ever become law, partly because he has spent virtually his entire career in the legislative minority.

When Brady is asked about his accomplishments, he often mentions helping create Bloomington's Heartland Community College. But Heartland was established before Brady took office. (Brady says he helped push for the college as a private citizen and then made sure it got funding after he was elected.) He also cites helping to guarantee health insurance for retired teachers, which took place in 1995.

"In very nice terms, I don't think he has a legislative record. He never really did anything," said Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat who has served with Brady on the Senate Revenue Committee.

Critics can't make the same allegation about Brady's record in business.

Brady's father filed for bankruptcy in 1984, when Brady was in his early 20s. Brady and his two brothers stepped in to help and eventually turned the ailing company into a string of about two dozen businesses.

They build homes, buy and sell property and own a motel, a radio station and even an indoor football team, the Bloomington Extreme.

William Ward, executive vice president of Home Builders Association of Illinois, said that at their peak the Bradys were probably building 200 homes a year throughout central Illinois.

Jesse Smart was mayor of Bloomington from 1985 to 1997, when the city and the Bradys were growing rapidly. He says Bill Brady, the eldest brother, tends to be the personality of the team, while Ed is the brains and youngest brother Bobby is the workhorse.

"It's a good combination," Smart said. "They all seem to have their role."

Smart said the family's bankruptcy left a deep impression on Brady. Brady's wife, Nancy, once told Smart that he watches every penny an attitude that Smart thinks would help in the governor's office.

"He'd have a different outlook on that than some silver-spoon kid," Smart said.

Like many companies involved in property and home sales, the Brady businesses are struggling now. In 2002, their company got 160 permits to build homes worth $7.4 million in Bloomington and Normal. By 2009, that had fallen to 32 permits for $3.6 million in homes.

Brady's personal income has fallen, too to the point that his business losses outweighed his legislative salary and he wound up paying no federal income taxes last year. Quinn has criticized him for that.

But Brady argues his business struggles, including having to lay off employees, prepares him for dealing with the state's much larger financial problems.

"Our challenges are so difficult we're going to have to think beyond the box," Brady said.


Associated Press Political Writer John O'Connor contributed to this report.