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updated: 4/7/2013 6:50 AM

Drake: Campaign for Arlington Heights leader is 'about the future'

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  • Ron Drake

    Ron Drake

  • A lawn sign for Ron Drake.

      A lawn sign for Ron Drake.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Ron Drake, left, and Thomas Hayes, center, and Mark Hellner, right, are candidates in the race for Arlington Heights Mayor in the 2013 Election.

    Ron Drake, left, and Thomas Hayes, center, and Mark Hellner, right, are candidates in the race for Arlington Heights Mayor in the 2013 Election.

  • Ron Drake at the Daily Herald for his endorsement interview.

    Ron Drake at the Daily Herald for his endorsement interview.

  • Ron Drake is the first mayoral candidate to file with Arlington Heights Village Clerk Rebecca Hume on Dec. 18.

      Ron Drake is the first mayoral candidate to file with Arlington Heights Village Clerk Rebecca Hume on Dec. 18.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Drake endorsement interview


Editor's note: This is the last of three profiles of the men running for Arlington Heights village president. This profile, plus the ones of Tom Hayes and Mark Hellner, are available on

Only one of the three candidates running to lead Arlington Heights has been a mayor before, and for a change that person is not Arlene Mulder.

For six years Ron Drake was the mayor of Avondale, a suburb of Phoenix, Ariz., experience he says has better prepared him to lead Arlington Heights than the two candidates he faces on the ballot Tuesday, April 9.

Getting into politics was almost accidental for Drake, who was talking to friends one night about the struggles Avondale was facing. One said, "If you don't like the way it's going, why don't you run for mayor and change it?"

He did, and from 2000 to 2006 he led the Arizona city through a period of rapid growth before resigning to launch an unsuccessful bid for Congress.

Moving from the Chicago suburbs to Arizona, and then back, were family decisions for the Hersey High School graduate, who says family always comes before politics.

Drake and his wife, Diane, were Illinois residents in the 1990s, but their son, Ronny, was getting sick every winter. After two rough winters -- scary nights involving breathing difficulties, a vaporizer and one trip to the emergency room -- the Drakes had enough and opted for a warmer climate.

They moved to Avondale without a house, a job, or any family there to help them.

Eleven years, two mayoral elections and one Congressional run later, Diane came to Ron one day and said with absolute certainty she wanted to move back to Chicago. Their children were grown.

Drake said at the time he was confused by his wife's conviction, but looking back now he said she must have known on some level that it was time to go home.

A few months later Diane was diagnosed with cancer.

"Her urging was so strong and it was like maybe God pulled her back to where her family and friends were because He knew that's where she needed to be," Drake said.

From 2007 to 2010 Diane fought mouth and tongue cancer with radiation, chemotherapy and a surgery that took half her tongue.

"It was one of the roughest times of my life," Drake said.

"People ask why I didn't get involved in Arlington Heights when I moved back, but I was in the biggest campaign of my life and that was to save Diane's life.

"We won that one," he says, adding Diane has been cancer-free for three years.

But his experience in Avondale must never have been far from Drake's mind.

In 2000, when he was first elected, the population of Avondale was around 35,000. Today it is more than 75,000 -- closer to the size of Arlington Heights.

Drake said he was able to bring in businesses the city didn't have, including car dealerships, to boost the tax base. He said he'll use that same process to Arlington Heights to try to fill needs in the village with new businesses.

Al Lageschulte, who was chairman of the Avondale planning and zoning commission while Drake was mayor, said Drake streamlined the process by which businesses got permits.

"He was the best Avondale ever had," Lageschulte said.

"When he came to the city it was a disaster. He had challenges in those first four years that I don't know how anyone else would have faced them," Lageschulte said.

When Drake took office he fired the city manager and said he had to clean up other management issues that were holding the city back.

Drake says his campaign in Arlington Heights is about bringing change, and trying to tap into the part of the electorate that hasn't been happy having the same mayor for 20 years.

"Whatever we've done in the last 20 years is done and we need to have a vision for the next 20," said Drake, who works for the Michael Walters Advertising Agency in Chicago. "I'm not Arlene Mulder and I wouldn't pretend to be. It will be different and it needs to be."

"Arlington Heights will be open for business," has been Drake's slogan throughout the campaign, a change he said needs to come internally from the village board and staff, even though the village has approved several measures in the past year to streamline the process for businesses.

"We need a whole change of culture in the organization," he said. "It can't take a year to open a new business."

As mayor of Avondale Drake prided himself on returning every single email and phone call from residents.

"I don't really think of Ron Drake as a politician," Lageschulte said. "He just wants to see a better way of doing things so he runs for office and makes it happen."

Drake said people are calloused by a lack of response from their elected officials.

"People don't expect to hear back anymore, but I will open the government to the people in Arlington Heights," he said.

Current Avondale Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers was on the city council when Drake was mayor. She declined to comment on Drake's leadership style or his time in Avondale, saying she wants to respect the election process.

Arizona law forced Drake to resign as mayor in order to run for Congress in 2006.

It wasn't an easy decision, he said, especially knowing he was facing a popular Democratic incumbent in a heavily Democratic district.

He said the choice was made easier, though, by his success in Avondale and wanting to help spread that around the district.

His opponent, Rep. Raul Grijalva, raised more than four times the amount of money Drake did, and on election day won 65 percent of the vote. Grijalva stayed in office until 2012, when he did not run for re-election in what now is a redrawn congressional district.

Drake said the loss was not unexpected, and that in one important way his campaign was a success. He got more votes than what the polls said were the number of Republicans in the district, meaning some Democrats had to have crossed over.

"I like to think we moved the needle a little bit," he said.

"It was an uphill battle for any Republican in 2006," Drake added. "I would never say I regret doing it because I made some great friends and learned so much."

In the months after the election Drake concentrated on his job at Qwest Communications, and then was preoccupied with moving back to Chicago and his wife's health crisis, so politics was not uppermost in his mind.

On whether he'll run for higher office again, Drake said he hasn't had time to think past April 9. As well, campaigns take a toll on him -- three times he's landed in the hospital for exhaustion after a race.

Drake made headlines last week with a big endorsement from Arizona Sen. John McCain.

While opponents and some local experts question how much weight the endorsement will carry in a local election, Drake said he was honored by the senator's kind words about his leadership.

He hopes the endorsement shows voters he has what it takes to run Arlington Heights.

"This campaign is about the future, not the past, and I'm the right one to bring Arlington Heights into that future," he said.

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