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Helland says he had to run, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Seneca High grad lost to White in sec of state bid

Gov. Bruce Rauner (left) with Helland, Comptroller candidate Darlene Senger, Treasurer candidate Jim Dodge and Attorney General candidate Erika Harold at Benedictine University in Lisle on Nov. 6. None of the Republican candidates for statewide office won.
Gov. Bruce Rauner (left) with Helland, Comptroller candidate Darlene Senger, Treasurer candidate Jim Dodge and Attorney General candidate Erika Harold at Benedictine University in Lisle on Nov. 6. None of the Republican candidates for statewide office won.

When he first decided to run for Illinois Secretary of State, Grundy County State's Attorney Jason Helland planned to run a fiscally responsible campaign. He purchased a used Ford Crown Victoria from the Elgin Police Department for $600 with every intention of driving it until it died.

And it did die, at the Love's Truck Stop in Utica, one night in January as he was heading out to a State of the Union watch party in Henry County. Helland said he opened the hood to see a spark plug sitting on top of the engine.

"I wanted to prove to the taxpayers of the state of Illinois that you need to live within your means and government needs to live within its means and I was driving that car to prove that," he said.

He was stuck, not even his wife would pick him up. He soon bought a new Ford Fiesta, but even that broke down by election night.

Helland was the first person from Grundy County to run for a statewide office since Republican William G. Stratton was elected governor in 1952, succeeding Adlai Stevenson to the position.

He got into the race in 2017, before it was clear incumbent Jesse White, one of the most popular politicians in the state of Illinois, was running for reelection. But when White decided to run again at the eleventh hour, Helland said he knew it would be a suicide mission.

The entire process was nearly a year and a half long. Helland said he met with representatives of Gov. Bruce Rauner, and the governor himself, and discussed expectations and plans for the race. If he ran, he told them, his job as state's attorney would still be a priority and campaigning would be done on nights and weekends.

"In July of 2017 we had an agreement I would run for secretary of state," he said. Then things went on pause after the Illinois General Assembly overrode Rauner's veto of a tax increase and there was a shake-up in the governor's staff. "There was a state of flux and we didn't know who was actually calling the shots."

So rather than announce his candidacy at the Illinois State Fair that year, Helland attended the fair as a citizen.

"It was a disappointment for me," he said.

By October 2017, however, the shifting staff changes in the governor's campaign office had settled and Helland was again running for secretary of state, and able to announce it.

What followed was 13 months of working 80-hour weeks, more than 70,000 miles behind the wheel traversing the state and being in as many locations as possible to campaign for his office and push the Republican ticket. If the candidates at the top of the ticket couldn't be at an event, Helland made sure he was there. At events in Grundy County, Rauner and Attorney General candidate Erika Harold both called him the hardest working man in the race.

Helland described it as an adventure, with having to sometimes travel the length of a state in the span of a day. He spent time at Lincoln Day and Reagan Day dinners throughout the southern part of the state.

His own campaign was run on a shoestring budget, what he called a "gas money campaign." With White a candidate, Helland said he was realistic about his own chances.

"We knew right from the start if Jesse White was a candidate, I was going to lose," Helland said. "I spent less money on this campaign than I did my last state's attorney race."

He said he called it a year ago he would only get 30 to 35 percent of the vote. He ended up with 29.5 percent and while he won 40 counties, Grundy County wasn't one of them, Helland losing it by about 1,200 votes.

"I spent absolutely no money in Grundy County," he said. "I didn't have billboards. I didn't have radio ads. I didn't have mailer pieces. I didn't walk doors. I had nothing in Grundy County ... I was way stronger than I expected to be in Grundy County."

Although he'd been running for almost a year, Helland's campaign didn't really receive statewide attention until he spoke at the 2018 Illinois State Fair, and then again in the late summer when he spoke before editorial boards. Then he received a lot of attention for comments he made in front of the Chicago Tribune editorial board about White's age, which some accused of being examples of ageism.

Helland said it was a small part of the debate that was taken out of context.

"They asked me the question and I gave them an honest answer," he said. "One minute out of an hour interview was focused on his age ... I picked apart his traffic safety plans, what was wrong, what would I do and they just wanted to say age."

His take on other candidates was that Illinois will see Harold again, that her story is one that will take her far in politics.

"Rauner was not a good politician. Rauner was the businessman that he was," Helland said. "But I think he will fund some serious Republican candidates."

Helland said this run for statewide office was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Will he run for other higher offices in the future?

"Absolutely not," he said. At this point in his career, he wants to focus on spending time with his family. He said he was focused on the 2020 race for state's attorney.

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