Way back in 1992, I did a story about Dan Rutherford’s first run for the Illinois House of Representatives.
The House Democrats back then quietly were spreading rumors about Rutherford’s private life, hoping the conservative, rural district would refuse to support someone who they said seemed to be gay. It was a classic “barber shop” play. Go where people hang out, such as barber shops and taverns, and start spreading a rumor. Spread that rumor in enough places, and pretty soon lots of folks would eventually hear it and spread it themselves.
Without mentioning Rutherford’s name, I wrote that I knew the district pretty well. I didn’t reveal it in the story at the time, but I was raised on a farm in Iroquois County and my mom was born in Pontiac, near where Rutherford lives.
I wrote all those years ago that the Democrats were deluding themselves. Those voters weren’t just conservatives, they were dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. They’d take a Republican over a Democrat any day of the week, pretty much no matter what the grapevine was saying. All the Democrats were doing was embarrassing themselves, I wrote, and they ought to cut it out. Rutherford won, of course. The Democrats’ tactic failed.
I remembered that story when the Sun-Times and the Tribune started publishing “exposés” about how Rutherford had a habit of staying in the same hotel room or apartment with his male travel aide on some government and political trips. These stories served little apparent purpose other than to try and gin up that very same rumor mill about the candidate. The pieces were almost adolescently prurient in nature.
As with the Democrats almost 22 years ago, the newspapers never should’ve done that and should’ve instead risen above such nonsense.
The real angle here is that insiders say the young man in question was not comfortable with the arrangement. He has not, to my knowledge, alleged that Rutherford did anything specifically untoward. It’s just that he reportedly didn’t want to continue sharing rooms with his male boss. The story buttresses accounts that Rutherford puts some very weird pressure on some of his employees.
But this young man’s name was dragged through some very unseemly mud by the two largest newspapers in his home state. It wasn’t fair to him, let alone the whisper campaign damage it did to Rutherford.
Ten years after I wrote that first story in 1992, I was talking with Rutherford about a news item in his local paper about how he’d used campaign money for his legislative office expenses. The expenses appeared perfectly legal, but he was one of only a handful of people who were doing it at the time, so he caught some heat for it.
I suggested to Rutherford this story might come back to haunt him if he attempted to move up to statewide office (Rutherford has been running for governor almost since he could walk).
Rutherford looked at me, got real quiet and then said, “Rich, you and I both know that if they come after me about something it won’t be about something like this.”
How right he was.
Last week, a reporter tweeted that Rutherford had decided to bar reporters from his election night party.
It’s hard to blame the guy.
Rutherford’s campaign says a Chicago Tribune reporter showed up at the home of Rutherford’s mother at 9:30 one night to ask her highly personal questions about her son.
The campaign also confirmed reports I’d heard that the paper pursued the parents of Rutherford’s travel aide to demand to know if their son was gay after reports surfaced that the two men had shared rooms together. And the campaign confirmed the Tribune pursued the aide’s ex-girlfriend with the same questions.
Look, Rutherford made some mistakes. Even some big mistakes.
But staking out a guy’s mom late at night and hounding the parents and ex-girlfriend of an employee with horribly inappropriate accusations seems way over the line to me. I mean, it’s not like Rutherford shot a man just to watch him die.
I always thought we were above the disgusting Hollywood paparazzi snooping level here in Illinois. I suppose I was wrong.
• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.