It's the first snowfall following a stretch of unseasonably warm winter days in Kane County, and Kevin Burns is late as he pulls up to a T.G.I. Friday's restaurant in St. Charles. He doesn't arrive on the campaign bus that bears his picture, but he's on his game when he walks in the door.
Burns, who's seeking the Republican nomination for the Kane County chairman's seat, comes from a family that, at various points, has had someone serve on just about every taxing body in the city, as well as several other commissions. That's led some to call the Burns family the Kennedys of Geneva. Perhaps inspired by dinnertime debates throughout his childhood, Burns is never at a loss for words. At times, the words he uses can raise eyebrows. His critiques can be biting. Even in attempts to sugarcoat his shots with humor, Burns concedes that sometimes his quotes may read a little harsh.
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"I don't expect everybody to like me," Burns said. "I certainly hope people at least respect me for being direct. To some extent, I've reached an edge where there's a rightful place for diplomacy, and a there's a rightful place for telling it like it is. I will not stand quietly when anyone uses innuendo to convey a story."
In the early stages of his run for the GOP nomination against State Sen. Chris Lauzen, Burns often found himself counterpunching slights to his resume and accomplishments. Now Burns is the one looking for that left hook that leaves him the only Republican standing.
Vitriol comes easy in this race. Burns and Lauzen already have a competitive history stemming from a 2008 Congressional run that pitted them against each other.
"When I announced I was running in 2008, I was approached by several people who said, 'Wait a minute. This is Chris' turn,' as if it was an entitlement," Burns recalled. "I explained (the 14th Congressional District) was an open seat. And that's pretty much where my relationship with Chris soured."
Burns knows a little bit about relationships souring. He lost more than the Congressional race in 2008. He lost much of what was then important to him. He's divorced now. He took a big financial hit. And on Feb. 23, he'll celebrate four years of sobriety.
"I was deathly afraid that when the Miller Lite dried up, so would my personality," Burns said. "But it didn't. It was a transformation. It was a realization that I wasn't as strong as I thought I was. I hurt my family. I had that overwhelming sense that I'm an abject failure, that I had failed in my personal life completely and irrevocably. I had to take responsibility for that."
That's a mea culpa Burns tells without anyone having to wave his public divorce records in his face.
"If I'm accepting responsibility for the pain, why would I try to hide it?" Burns explains.
Now Burns dwells on the positive side of that change. More confidence. Thicker skin. He's a better father. He has a faster ability to bounce back rather than obsessing about what people will say about him in tomorrow's paper. Indeed, Burns believes if he was the man he is now back in 2008, he'd be sitting in Randy Hultgren's Congressional seat.
Instead, Burns is running for Kane County Board chairman. The job description for that role is similar to that of Geneva mayor. But there is at least one important difference that some of Burns' former colleagues believe he may struggle with.
Burns has no vote as Geneva mayor unless the 10-member city council creates a tie vote. That's also true of the Kane County Board chairman. But the chairman will have 24 county board members to find consensus among.
County board members who can't handle a flies-with-vinegar approach may find a tough time working with Burns, former Geneva Alderman William Barclay said.
"Do I think Kevin is a consensus builder? Do I think he can get people working together? As long as you're on Team Kevin, absolutely," Barclay said. "But not to be on Team Kevin is not a fun place to be."
Indeed, both Barclay and former Alderman Ray Pawlak said Burns has no problems publicly taking fellow elected officials "to the woodshed" if softer attempts to coax them over to his point of view fall short. Barclay and Pawlak often found themselves in that woodshed.
"Kevin has done a good job as mayor," Pawlak said. "He's very passionate about what he does. But I never made it personal. I never lost my cool. Kevin's leadership style is different than mine."
Burns describes his professional style as a combination of all the career paths he's walked. Part fundraiser. Part salesman. Part politician. And, yes, that does involve a certain amount of prodding people to come around to his way of thinking. His goal is to never make that process feel uncomfortable, but that's a work in progress.
At a recent debate with Lauzen, he admitted to using "words that were inappropriate" during the campaign, an allusion to Burns' criticism of Lauzen's attempts to paint himself as the only true Republican in the race.
Burns describes himself as a moderate Republican.
Another part of what's fueling Burns' contempt for Lauzen stems from what he sees as attempts to make social "wedge" issues, like abortion, the focus of the race.
"The race at this level of government is about who can make the trains run on time, make sure the snow is plowed, and use resources efficiently," Burns said. "As politicians, sometimes we become so fractured and fearful that you'll lose the loyalty within your own party if you partner with someone across the aisle that stands in the way of getting things done.
"To some extent, the chairman's role should be nonpartisan," he added. "It's about facilitating discussion, addressing issues and finding solutions to those issues with the resources you have. It's not about the wedge issues. I'm running for chairman, not chaplain."
Burns may still be seeking the equilibrium between his political fire and his words. Personally, Burns believes it's a different story. As he finished lunch and mentally prepared to brave the snowy road to Iowa for his daughter's volleyball game, Burns said the flaw of debates is only learning the man's policies, not the man himself.
"If people came to visit with me on an informal basis, I'd like to think most would walk away saying I'm a pretty nice guy," he said. "Yeah, maybe he's a typical Irishman; he gets his dander up every now and then. But I think most people are looking for authenticity. I am what I am, warts and all."