First days as treasurer are whirlwind for novice politician

St. Louis Post-Dispatch | January 14, 2007 | A1

On his first day as state treasurer, Alexi Giannoulias has been mostly on display – at the swearing-in, in his office, and at a reception. He’s going to spend the next couple hours doing more of the same at the state’s inaugural ball.

It’s 9:22 p.m. Monday, and in just half an hour he needs to be in place for the first dance of statewide officials. But his mind is on his stomach.

“Hey, guys, if there’s a McDonald’s anywhere nearby, I could kill for some food,” he says.

His driver is listening and finds one, over the objections of Giannoulias’ mother and girlfriend, both clad in evening gowns. Minutes later Giannoulias, D-Chicago, wearing a classic, double-breasted black tuxedo with black cummerbund and bow tie is racing into the fast food restaurant.

“Hi, I’m Alexi Giannoulias, the new state treasurer.”

New is an understatement for Giannoulias, who is just 30 and never held elected office. Some state legislators have been serving since before he was born.

Giannoulias got a taste of politics while helping Barack Obama get elected to the Senate in 2004, and he wanted his own chance at public service. He made his decision to run with the blessing of Obama, not the Democratic Party. He easily defeated Knox County State’s Attorney Paul Mangieri in the primary, then overcame GOP state Sen. Christine Radogno with 53 percent of the vote.

It was his first campaign. He previously worked for the family bank after playing pro basketball in Greece for a year – he is 6 feet 2 inches tall – and earning a law degree from Tulane University in New Orleans.

Says state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Collinsville: “He’s a rising star that will be around as a beacon for the Democratic Party for a long time.”

Giannoulias orders chicken strips for himself, a Diet Coke for his mother, Anna, and french fries for his girlfriend, whose name he closely guards.

Ten minutes later, Giannoulias is in place at the ball, backstage on the maroon carpet standing next to Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Giannoulias’ mother is straightening his tie; his girlfriend checks for food in his teeth.

Giannoulias walks up to the balcony overlooking a packed house of politicians and Springfield operatives. They’re all there to watch the constitutional officers – including the new one, Giannoulias, in a ceremonial dance.

“That’s awesome,” he says.

The rest of the night is handshakes, TV interviews, hugs and more handshakes. Sometime after midnight, “A.G.” – as his staff calls him – is back in the State Police van for the ride to the hotel.

Giannoulias pulls out his PDA and checks his e-mail.

And then it’s back to business.

“I’ve got an e-mail about the ethics plan,” he says. “They say it looks good. We need to go over that in the morning.”

‘WELCOME TO SPRINGFIELD’

Earlier Monday, at 2:15 p.m., Giannoulias is taking the back way to his office in the state Capitol. The line for his postinaugural reception is already stretching outside the double doors that bear his name – a change that only happened a few hours earlier.

In the line are supporters, legislators, managers, directors, mayors, county officials, Springfield politicos, even a Romanian diplomat. Both Democrats and Republicans are represented.

Comments focus on the swearing-in speech he gave in which he talked about his Greek immigrant father who went from pickle salesman to founder of a community bank in 1978.

During the campaign, Giannoulias touted his time as a vice president and senior loan officer at that institution, Broadway Bank in Chicago, which manages more than $750 million in assets. But he almost immediately faced questions about loans the bank made to campaign contributors as well as to a man with ties to organized crime.

But that’s in the past, and dozens of supporters are here again to greet him. Members of his staff take business cards from officials who could help with new legislation. He thanks supporters for their help during the primary and shows a sense of humor and charm that has earned adulation.

Later in the day Rep. Harry Osterman, D-Chicago, drops in and is met with a hearty hug. Osterman looks back at the line of visitors that keeps coming through the treasurer’s door. “Welcome to Springfield,” he says.

A FULL MAILBOX

Giannoulias strolls into his office at 8:20 a.m. Tuesday for his first full day as treasurer. He greets his staff, including his deputy treasurer, Martin Noven, a 13-year employee of the office.

There’s some confusion over who has Giannoulias’ e-mail password.

And when he leaves a phone message for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville, Giannoulias still doesn’t know what phone number to give.

He also takes time to listen to his voice messages. He finds 47 waiting since he checked the previous evening. The mailbox is full.

He opens his doors and greets a couple legislators with a hearty, “Gentlemen!”

State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-Moline, slips into Giannoulias’ office and says to the staff, “Here’s to hoping Alexi is going to turn this sleepy little bank we have here into an economic giant as it should be.”

Later, in a closed-door meeting, members of Giannoulias’ staff take turns quizzing him on a new ethics plan. They’re trying to anticipate what questions the press will have.

The new plan will severely restrict whom Giannoulias’ campaign can take money from. Banks and anyone holding a state contract are out. So are his employees or their families. Gifts from lobbyists are not an option, either.

Then the discussion turns philosophical. Giannoulias sees something odd about the entire system of campaign finance in Illinois.

“Under my own rules, I can’t take a gift, but someone can write my campaign a $50,000 check. Does anyone think that’s weird?” he asks his staff. “Money in this case isn’t a gift? What, does it have to be wrapped in a box?”

Says Noven, the deputy treasurer, “That’s the business, unless campaigns are funded differently.”

Later Tuesday afternoon, Giannoulias gets to the business of the state’s banking and feels more at home. He’s in a closed meeting about investment practices for the office, which manages $13 billion in assets.

“I have an open-door management policy,” Giannoulias tells them. “If you have ideas, I want to hear them.”

Around the table is more than 70 years of investment experience. Oddly enough, Giannoulias is the first treasurer in at least a generation with a private banking background.

Giannoulias says he wants to make the state’s investments more transparent.

“This sounds cheesy, but I like to think of the people of Illinois as shareholders,” he says. “If I were a shareholder of a corporation, I want to know what the corporation expects to do.”

He gets a round of nods from the table, and then the group launches into discussions of forecasting and benchmarks, as well as securities lending and new investment authority. They talk about the low-interest loan program the office runs, as well as the state’s college savings program.

One of the office’s investment managers, Rhonda Poeschel, says, “It’s nice to be able to talk with somebody who has that knowledge.”

Giannoulias wants to set up an advisory committee that will include legislators and private investment managers. But those people have to guarantee that they’ll never again be after state business, he says. There cannot be even the appearance of insider dealing.

“This has to be Ziploc; it has to be clean,” Giannoulias says.

‘JUST A BABY’

Giannoulias’ office doors are closed – he’s reading about a number of multimillion-dollar hotel loans that the state made in 1982. The loans were never paid back, and they’ve been a burden for every treasurer since.

A staff member summons him; it’s time to go to another reception, this one for Senate President Emil Jones. Earlier in the day he went to a party for Michael Madigan, speaker of the House. Madigan has been at odds with Giannoulias since the primary last year. Such visits are important for a novice politician, especially given Giannoulias’ rift with the speaker, who also serves as chairman of the state Democratic Party. The split developed over Giannoulias’ candidacy against Mangieri.

Giannoulias, meanwhile, is frustrated because he can’t get enough time to read through the background on the hotels.

“I’ve been at this for three hours, and there’s always interruptions,” he complains.

No matter; at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Giannoulias is walking up the stairs in Springfield’s Hilton again. He is stopped five times on the steps to the second-floor ballroom to shake hands.

Off to the side, a Democratic supporter spots Giannoulias and blurts out: “He’s just a baby …”

The shock fades away as Giannoulias reaches to shake the man’s hand.

Sidebar: Newest face in Springfield

Alexi Giannoulias

Position: State treasurer

Politics: Democrat

Age: 30

Hometown: Chicago

Prior political experience: None

Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics from Boston University; law degree from Tulane University in New Orleans.

Background: Son of Greek immigrant parents; worked for Broadway Bank, founded by his father in 1978; played college basketball in Boston and pro basketball in Greece.

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