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updated: 1/23/2011 9:03 AM

Giannoulias heads to Argentina to reflect next steps

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  • Alexi Giannoulias plans to write a book and consider the future.

       Alexi Giannoulias plans to write a book and consider the future.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

 
 

Alexi Giannoulias spent the past two years surrounded by political advisers, speechwriters and campaign staffers, all working to help light the way from the state treasurer's office to the U.S. Senate seat once held by his mentor and friend, President Barack Obama.

That chapter ended shortly after midnight Nov. 2, as Giannoulias conceded in an emotional speech at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago, losing to Republican Mark Kirk by a 2 percentage point margin.

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"Losing is never easy," the charismatic 34-year-old told a crowd of supporters that night, his voice breaking. "I'm sorry if I let you down."

Now, for the first time in a long time, Giannoulias is heading off alone. Based in a rented home in Palermo, Argentina, he plans to spend 50 days in relative solitude in South America, using the time to help victims of the mudslides in Brazil, work on a "tell mostly" book about his bid for U.S. Senate and think long and hard about what lies ahead.

With money in the bank (his net worth is between $7 million and $29 million, according to financial disclosure reports) and a host of job offers on the table -- everything from teaching to investment banking to hedge fund management -- Giannoulias has the luxury of doing just that.

The retreat, he hopes, will perhaps bring him some clarity, direction and peace.

Both physically and mentally, Giannoulias has become hardened in the weeks since the election.

He's using exercise -- working out hours a day and playing basketball four to five times a week -- to get out some of the frustration of losing a bitter, costly race that he says attacked so many of the things he held dear.

"It destroys you when people say complete mistruths about your family," Giannoulias said over lunch a few days before his trip. "It's so unfair and so miserable. I never took that stuff personally when people said I was too young, too inexperienced. I get politics. I get attack ads. But they said 'mobbed up family.' That we were criminals. That kills me."

The race, he said, also took its toll on his relationship with fiance Tara Flocco, a Chicago philanthropist. The pair have put their wedding off for the time being.

"I tried so hard (to shield her)," Giannoulias said. "I got some death threats, which, a lot of that stuff was really tough to see and feel. We're trying to figure it out. ... Relationships are tough as is, before adding this stuff."

The race for Senate -- which the Giannoulias camp spent roughly $25 million on -- at a very early stage became dominated by mudslinging, following the April collapse of his family's Chicago bank and its reported loans to members of organized crime. Just weeks later, it was revealed that Kirk had exaggerated his military record.

"Mob banker" and "serial liar" became as synonymous with the candidates as their respective political affiliations -- and the race remained neck and neck until late in the evening election night.

Throughout the campaign, Giannoulias said he used a strategy he'd employed on the basketball court, while playing for Boston University and professionally in Greece for a year.

"You don't let yourself think you're going to win. But you also can't picture yourself losing. That was my mindset," he said.

So, that first Tuesday evening in November, he said he found himself completely unprepared as to how to react on election night. He hadn't even written a speech.

A protective strategy, perhaps, but all the same, it didn't help cushion the blow of the loss.

"You have to tell your brothers, your mom, it's over. I had to look (campaign manager, Democratic Sen. Dick) Durbin in the eye and say 'I'm sorry.' That was very, very hard,' he said.

A tough defeat for Giannoulias, but political experts say a loss on the first try for U.S. Senate is not unexpected.

"Looking at the mechanics of what it takes to win office in this day and age, one has to assume that they will have to run a couple times," said Bruce Newman, a DePaul University professor and author of several political marketing books. "Really from a marketing standpoint, the first run is a test run. (Though) maybe not in his mind."

Barack Obama, who had been elected to the state Senate, ran for Congress in 2000 and lost, then won a bid for U.S. Senate in 2004. Durbin, too, lost bids for Illinois state Senate in 1976 and lieutenant governor in 1978, before being elected as a 20th District congressman in 1982.

Still, Giannoulias, who had won statewide election to the treasurer's post, thought he'd be an exception.

Following the election, Giannoulias hunkered down, declining media requests.

Away on vacation in Mexico weeks later, rumors started to swirl that he might be considering a bid for mayor of Chicago. In reality, he said, his phone was off.

"I don't know anything about (running) in the mayor's race," he said.

Giannoulias won't say who he's voting for in the Chicago mayoral race, only that he's "not going to get involved."

As for his own political future, he said he "can't imagine a scenario" where he would run for office in 2012. Instead, he plans to help Obama campaign for re-election.

That's a wise move, said Barbara Burrell, political science professor at Northern Illinois University. Instead of investing money and energies into a race with a tight turnaround, he can use the time to build goodwill within the Democratic Party, and publicly build his own brand by staying in the news.

In recent weeks, Giannoulias said, he has spoken a number of times with Obama, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, both former pickup basketball buddies. Giannoulias said the president advised him to hang tough and to take some time to figure out his next steps.

As he does this, Newman said, Giannoulias must "stay nimble and flexible," keeping in mind that new issues, new competitors, and new unpredictable events will be thrown into the mix, all ultimately affecting any future bids for office.

Meanwhile, time could put more distance between him and the family banking problems that turned out to be his biggest election challenge, Newman said. And yet, there's no guarantee that will not be pulled out by a future opponent to use during a campaign.

"It depends on what plays out. ... People forget. People have short memories," Newman said, adding, however, that that could change if the issue comes up again in the news or otherwise.

Giannoulias, who plans to stay in Chicago, said he will likely pursue investment work in clean energy, a longtime passion.

Alongside a 9-to-5 job, he's also mulling over the possibility of finding a way to teach college political science from an insider's perspective.

Giannoulias also plans to devote time to helping the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center, a 10-year-old nonprofit for abused children.

"I've had all these offers. I'm going to take some time to think about what I want to do, what will be fulfilling," he said. "I don't just want to make money. I want to continue to serve, to help people."

He'll be careful, in the book, not to limit those chances.

"I think it's a tell mostly," Giannoulias said. "I don't want to spend time bashing people. What's the experience of running for office. The inside of politics. The pros and cons and the dangers. ... It's kind of exciting. Now's a good time. How many times are you going to get to leave for a month and a half?"

The timing is perfect, Newman agrees.

"This guy wants to breathe. He needs to leverage a position. He needs to make some money. He's also going to wait and see what opens up. From a branding standpoint, I think he's a well established brand in the state of Illinois. Without much effort, he could pick up and run for any office in the state."

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