At 34 years old and yet to complete his first term as Illinois treasurer, Alexi Giannoulias decided it was time to succeed an admired friend and basketball buddy, President Barack Obama, in the U.S. Senate.
Giannoulias, whose only other big job was working at his late father’s bank, was told by some to get more experience. Even the White House courted another Democrat for the job.
But Giannoulias pushed ahead, eventually winning the nomination in what some call a mark of his drive and ambition, which Giannoulias attributes to his Greek family’s immigrant background. He credits some of his success to a lucky sense of timing.
“There’s a certain drive to do things and to work hard and to succeed but, you know, again, this is less about me, I think, than other people and helping other people,” he said in an Associated Press interview. “I just think it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come up too often,” said Giannoulias, a graduate of Boston University who has a law degree from Tulane University.
His critics attack him for his inexperience, his failed family bank’s deals with criminals and problems with the college-savings program he oversees as treasurer. During the exceptionally negative campaign, Republicans scoff at the idea Giannoulias is ready for the U.S. Senate. They argue he’ll follow the White House and other Democrats in Washington, rather than push his own ideas.
When Giannoulias was elected treasurer in 2006, he touted his experience working as an executive at his family’s Chicago bank. But in the Senate campaign, his financial background has been a drag, and he has tried to distance himself from its troubles. The bank failed earlier this year. The Chicago Tribune has reported the bank lent about $27 million to two convicted criminals, much of it after Giannoulias was an executive.
A major accomplishment during his tenure as treasurer has been signing an executive ethics order for his office banning “pay to play politics,” the kind of quid pro quo shenanigans Illinois is known for. Under the order, banks, office employees and contractors were prohibited from contributing to his campaign fund.
But Giannoulias’ time as treasurer has been overshadowed in the campaign by the “Bright Start” college-savings program. The program lost about $150 million in one of its investment options, although Giannoulias recovered about half of it from the firm overseeing the investments.
Giannoulias told the AP he followed the advice of financial experts even though he saw early signs of trouble with the fund. Some experts have said Giannoulias acted responsibly and sounded the alarm about the firm managing the fund that also had losses in other states.
Still, his family’s Chicago bank failure has been Giannoulias’ biggest hurdle.
Founded by his late father more than 30 years ago, Giannoulias rose through the ranks to become vice president when he ran and won his state office four years ago.
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Giannoulias, who is single, has said the bank was in sound financial shape when he worked there, but regulators shut down Broadway Bank in April when it couldn’t raise new capital.
Kirk says the bank failure should cast doubt on Giannoulias’ judgment, but Giannoulias staunchly defends his family’s business.
“Is it easy to cherry pick a few customers out of thousands, out of thousands, and make a nasty political ad, absolutely,” Giannoulias told the AP. “But any business owner will tell you that running a business is not a straight line and mistakes are made and inevitably, unfortunately, sometimes you do business with people you never wish you would have.”
Where Democrat Alexi Giannoulias stands on the issues:
Taxes: Supports letting Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy expire.
Gay rights: Supports gay marriage. Supports repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which has prevented gays from serving opening in the military.
Immigration: Supports the DREAM Act, which would help grant U.S. residency to some young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally by their parents by requiring them to spend time in college or the military.
Health care: Supports the new health care reform legislation.
Abortion: Supports a women’s right to choose an abortion.
SOURCE: Associated Press