CHICAGO – Treasurer Dan Rutherford was gearing up to make a big splash in the Republican race for Illinois governor with his television ads set to hit the airwaves this week, but now one of the defining moments of his campaign may instead be allegations of misconduct that he made public himself.
Political experts say Rutherford took a risk last week when he called an abrupt news conference to disclose that an employee in his office had made unspecific claims against him, which he later acknowledged involved harassment and being forced to do campaign work on state time
With just weeks before the March 18 primary, Rutherford's move has invited intense scrutiny with possibly little time to recover as more details emerge. At the same time, he could use the attention to his advantage, depending on how he handles the fallout.
"There seems to be more questions than answers," said Pete Giangreco, a Democratic strategist.
Rutherford alleged at the news conference that the employee was put up to it by Republican rival Bruce Rauner, who has denied wrongdoing. Rutherford was dogged by the issue over the weekend and again Monday, when he acknowledged the specific claims during a Chicago Tribune editorial board meeting that was broadcast on the Internet.
Rutherford denied both and reiterated his claim that an attorney once on Rauner's payroll asked for $300,000 on the employee's behalf to "walk away and keep it under wraps." Rauner's campaign has said the attorney briefly worked on a lease agreement for the campaign but there was no truth to the claims otherwise.
Still, the timing for Rutherford is critical. The start of early voting is about a month away, the Chenoa Republican has been trying to distinguish himself from the three other candidates, and political analysts are split on what fallout the events could have.
"It doesn't matter what the nature of the scandal is," said political strategist Doug O'Brien, who was chief aide to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk while he was an Illinois congressman. "Dan Rutherford is now damaged goods."
He said Rutherford will have to spend time leading up to his ads this week defending his name and reputation, particularly on the allegation of forcing an employee to do campaign work on state time, and that could lead to problems with fundraising.
Although Rauner has raised by far the most money, at the end of the most recent quarter, Rutherford had more cash on hand than anyone in the GOP field.
Rutherford's approach so far has been to cast himself as the only candidate who's won statewide office. In 2010, Rutherford beat Democratic nominee Robin Kelly, who's now a congresswoman. He has touted his fiscal acumen by saying he cuts his office's budget each year and talks about his frugality on the campaign trail. He tells prospective voters that his mom had saved card stock from previous campaigns to reuse in his gubernatorial run.
His ads, coinciding with the start of the Olympics, will incorporate those ideas and be "positive," campaign spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said.
The only other gubernatorial candidate on television is Rauner, a wealthy businessman who's raised millions on the campaign trail. He has portrayed himself as a political outsider who can change things in Springfield. State Sen. Bill Brady, who won the GOP nomination in 2010, said he has learned lessons for his second time around. State Sen. Kirk Dillard has played up his experience as chief of staff for former Gov. Jim Edgar.
But others said that Rutherford has a long track record in state government, including nearly 18 years as a state lawmaker, that would be difficult to undo in a short time period.
"This raises Rutherford's exposure level," said political analyst Thom Serafin. "It's going to take a pretty good whack to diminish that brand."
Rutherford told The Associated Press Monday that going public has given him a boost. He said he felt he had no other choice than to bring the employee's allegations public, but agreed it was risky.
"That doesn't mean it isn't something you shouldn't do," he said. "I know the accusations are completely false; I'm going public with it. That's the right thing to do."
Meanwhile, Rauner told reporters Monday that there was no connection between him and the employee's attorney "whatsoever."
"It's ridiculous," he told reporters in Chicago. "Mudslinging goes on in politics all the time."
Still, how the issue resonates with voters remains to be seen. Some have said the Rutherford allegations might not matter.
Richard Henry, 55, of suburban Shorewood, settled on Rutherford after being undecided for weeks. The aspiring business owner is a Republican, but has voted for Democrats.
He said the employee's allegations didn't sway him, instead leaving him to question motivations and timing.
"Dan may have a couple of skeletons [hidden] away somewhere, but as a whole he's serious about trying to make a change for the state," he said.
Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, is seeking re-election. He has one lesser-known challenger, anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman of suburban Chicago.
Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen.