Democratic candidates in a contentious primary race for Illinois secretary of state all promised Wednesday to modernize the office, while Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia and former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias continued to trade barbs over who is better suited ethically to take the post.

In a meeting with the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, Valencia brought up questions about Giannoulias that were first raised in 2010 when he unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate, mainly over his time as a loan officer for his family’s bank that lent money to alleged organized crime figures.

Giannoulias criticized Valencia over possible conflicts between her role as city clerk and her husband’s lobbying practice, allegations she dismissed as misinterpretations of emails and texts that have been made public by the media.

“My opponent here, Alexi Giannoulias, is trying to put a narrative out there of misinformation about my life to deflect from his own unethical behavior,” Valencia said.

“I think it’s the media” that’s put that out there, Giannoulias quipped, interrupting Valencia.

Valencia and Giannoulias, along with Chicago Ald. David Moore, are vying to replace longtime Secretary of State Jesse White, who is retiring when his term ends. White has endorsed Valencia for the office, something she noted prominently during the hourlong session.

Giannoulias and Valencia have made ethics a central issue in the race for an office that has a history of corruption in Illinois. Former Gov. George Ryan went to prison for a corruption scandal that focused on his time as secretary of state in the 1990s.

The questions about Valencia’s husband’s work as a lobbyist are important because the secretary of state’s office oversees the registration of lobbyists who work with the state government, Giannoulias said.

“There’s a whopper every single day,” he said of the news reports alleging Valencia benefited her husband’s business by using her office. “People are sick and tired of scandal and corruption.”

Valencia said she would push for legislation to keep former state legislators from doing any lobbying with the state for two years after they leave office, instead of the six-month window recently passed by legislators. She said that she and her husband — who is a registered lobbyist with both the secretary of state and Chicago’s City Hall — would release their tax returns every year.

Valencia acknowledged mistakes in having her husband, Reyahd Kazmi, copied on city clerk office emails that were obtained by the Tribune and other media and have raised suspicions about possible conflicts.

“When I came into public office there are some growing pains you have,” said Valencia, who has been city clerk since 2017, “and I had to live them out very publicly these few weeks or a month and I wish I would’ve been more careful with my emails, and my personal and professional emails. I will own that.”

“There will be the strongest firewall between my husband and I,” she said. “We have separate careers and if I’m elected secretary of state, he’ll not do any business with the state of Illinois.”

She brought up the collapse of the Giannoulias family-owned Broadway Bank, a Chicago-based lender that collapsed after it lent millions of dollars to convicted Chicago crime figures while he was a senior loan officer from 2002 to 2006, shortly before he became state treasurer. On Wednesday, Valencia alleged that Giannoulias’ family still owes millions of dollars to the federal government due to the bank’s failure.

“They don’t owe a penny,” Giannoulias said.

Giannoulias touted his ethics record as state treasurer and said he doesn’t think any elected official should be able to lobby any other unit of government. Moore called for expanding the inspector general’s role in the office and expanding fees and fines for various ethical violations.

“These things have to be questioned,” Moore said. “We’ve all been elected and we know what the responsibilities are and we’re always taught, even if you think it’s not right just the mere presence of it, the mere appearance of it, that should you should step back from it.”

All three candidates proposed different approaches to modernizing the office.

Giannoulias said he wanted to offer the option of digital driver’s licenses that residents could keep on their cellphones to “make things more efficient,” and creating a phone app for driver’s license, vehicle title and registration services.

He also discussed starting a “skip-the-line” program where the office could schedule an appointment via text instead of waiting in line at a driver’s services facility for hours.

“Essentially, we want to eliminate the time tax,” Giannoulias said. “It takes too much time for them to access simple government services. We have to make that an easier process.”

Moore said he would push for digital license plates, which he said could allow law enforcement to more quickly learn that a car is stolen.

Valencia said she would create an online portal for a “one-stop shop” to register a business and renew a driver’s license

She also talked about establishing a similar program to one she oversees as city clerk, the CityKey program that is designed to help immigrants or undocumented Chicagoans use a single ID as a library card, a transit and a prescription discount card.

Giannoulias has a commanding financial advantage over his opponents. Through March, his campaign had $4.4 million on hand, more than Valencia and Moore combined, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Valencia had $1.1 million on hand through March and Ald. Moore had just a little more than $38,600, board of elections data show.

Giannoulias has secured endorsements from politicians including U.S. Reps. Jesús “Chuy” García and Bobby Rush, as well as the state’s major forces of organized labor. Valencia is backed by the state’s top Democrats, U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, whose reelection campaign Valencia ran in 2014, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Valencia also attacked Giannoulias for a 2016 Tribune op-ed that was published right before Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton to win the presidency, in which he wrote that Americans should rally around whoever won the election.

Valencia chided Giannoulias for not expressly condemning Trump for his disparaging comments about women and minorities leading up to the election.

“For her to turn it into ‘Alexi’s a Trumper’ … is despicable, offensive,” Giannoulias said, making clear that he strongly opposes Trump.

Moore remained largely above the fray, stressing that the secretary of state’s office is constituent-driven, just like his role as alderman.

“Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, you have to serve everyone in this capacity,” Moore said. “In order for you to be a good servant, you have to be willing to work for everybody.”

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