WE ARE ILLINOIS
Bill Brady's conservative roots go deep in Bloomington
By Abdon Pallasch - Chicago Sun-Times
"You served a lot of masses there, didn't you, hon?" Nancy Brady asks her husband, Bill, at Holy Trinity in Downstate Bloomington, the church where they got married.
"We were altar boys," Brady says. Then, lowering his voice, he adds, smiling his trademark toothy grin: "But also, we'd get out of school because some of the older folks didn't have enough family to have pallbearers, so we'd work. ..."
The Republican state lawmaker running for governor laughs and can't finish his sentence.
"We'd get 10 bucks a crack," for serving as pallbearers to strangers, says Patrick Brady, chairman of the Republican Party of Illinois and a childhood friend and neighbor of Brady, though the two are not related. "We had one guy once who was 340 pounds."
'Strong Irish Catholic family'
This church was a center of Bill Brady's life growing up in the small central Illinois town of Bloomington. The junior high school Brady and his children attended is there. The high school was there, too.
"We grew up with a bunch of priests, good friends," Brady says. "Our son's named after one of them."
Confounding the nuns of Bloomington's Catholic schools through their senior year in high school were Brady and his cousin Tim Brady, along with Patrick Brady and his cousin, state Rep. Dan Brady, all in the same class.
"It had to be tough on those nuns at Central Catholic because we were a handful," Dan Brady said.
John Snyder, 79, taught Bill, his mother and his children: "They're a very strong Irish Catholic family, very strong in their faith, very proud of their heritage."
Bill Brady won his improbable 20 percentage point victory in the crowded Republican primary for governor by stressing his Downstate bona fides. His conservative religious views against abortion, gay rights and for teaching "intelligent design" are right at home here, though they frighten some suburban swing voters. Brady doesn't talk about social issues on the campaign trail. He leads Democrat Pat Quinn 44 percent to 37 percent in the latest poll.
The light pouring through Holy Trinity's stained-glass windows bathes everything in the church blue, but on the political map, Bloomington is pure red.
"Bloomington is a very conservative area," Snyder says. "It's a white-collar community. You have the two universities -- Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan -- and you have State Farm." Bloomington is a company town -- both Bill and Nancy interned at State Farm.
"You don't win as a Democrat in this area," Snyder says. "My politics are a little bit different than Bill's. But I'll vote for Bill -- though I think he'll have a tough time of it."
Native son Adlai Stevenson lost his home precinct running for president as a Democrat, Brady says.
"It's a wonderful place to raise a family," Nancy says. "We don't have the Chicago night life. We do have indoor plumbing."
'He's Billy Brady'
Brady grew up the handsome athlete and frat boy with a winning smile. Critics say the good looks and people skills paper over a thin record of accomplishment in Springfield and a lack of interest in the nuts and bolts of state budgeting and legislating. That's the same criticism heaped on Brady's old poker partner Barack Obama.
"Billy" Brady played football and was a wrestling champ, placing fourth in the state his senior year.
"In this town, he's 'Billy Brady,' " Nancy says. That distinguishes him from his late father, Bill, and his son, Will.
"We rode our bikes together, stayed overnight at each other's houses, got in trouble," Dan Brady said. "We always compared stories before we talked to Mom and Dad. But my parents would call the other Bradys. They'd figure out one of us was not telling the truth."
The Brady boys double-dated at proms. When Dan Brady broke up with a girl, "Billy asked if he could call and ask her out and I said, 'Sure, I'm sure she'd be willing to go out with you' and he called her and she said, 'No.' He said, 'You must have set me up!' I said, 'I swear, I thought she would say Yes.' Maybe she'd had enough of the Bradys."
Patrick Brady, co-captain of the football team with Bill, tarred floors with him in one of Bill's father's buildings during high school. It was 100 degrees.
"We were convinced our fathers hated us and we were adopted," Bill Brady said.
Brady spent just about every Saturday of his childhood on work sites of his dad's construction business. He became a union carpenter. He persuaded his parents to let him move out of the house to attend Illinois Wesleyan University just a few miles from home.
"He's not really telling you the real story," Nancy interjects. "Your dad cried when you went to Wesleyan," she tells Bill, then turning to the interviewer, she adds: "His family is very, very close."
"But anyway," Brady says, trying to change the subject.
"He didn't want him leaving home," Nancy continues. "He takes him to school, which is two miles from his house, and was crying cause he was leaving home."
Brady quickly says: "Every parent cries when their child leaves for school."
The couple is sitting at the Lucca Grill, unofficial headquarters of the Democratic Party of McLean County. Brady plugs the pizza, then orders the meatloaf.
His father used to bring him here when he was a leader of the Republican Party and restaurant founder John Baldini was chairman of the Democratic Party. A picture of Baldini welcoming President John F. Kennedy to Bloomington hangs on the wall.
"He probably inspired political involvement in my life more than anyone," Brady said of his father's friend Baldini.
At one point, Baldini and the elder Bill Brady prepared to run against each other for the state senate seat Brady now holds. His dad gathered signatures, drove to Springfield and filed his petitions. But both men eventually backed out.
'A solid, hardworking kid'
One bit of unusual behavior Bill Brady engaged in during high school was listening to politicians' speeches.
"We'd be sitting up in his room, and he'd listen to records of people impersonating John Kennedy," Dan Brady said. "I'd think: What the heck?"
That interest continued into college, said Brady's former political science professor John Wenum.
"He had a strong business orientation. He was an economic conservative. I never got any sense of how he felt on social issues. Our conversations were mostly about public finance. He thought government was being generally careless in fiscal policy, as did I." Wenum said.
Wenum, a former Republican county commissioner, figured Brady would run for office one day.
Was Brady smart?
"I would put Bill well above the median," Wenum said. "He was not a 4.0 student. He was a solid student, not a top student, not at the bottom, just a solid, hardworking kid."
Walking through the neatly mowed quads of Illinois Wesleyan, Brady points out his old haunts, including the library, which might surprise his critics.
"I would always walk in, and he'd be reading the Wall Street Journal," Nancy says, pointing to the Sheehan Library. "No, seriously, he was always reading the paper."
She made first move
Brady worked at the family business or his own budding businesses all through college: "I went to work for my dad, trying to help the business survive. The reorganization took two years."
On weekends he worked on the family Christmas tree farm. He interned with Rep. Edward Madigan during President Ronald Reagan's inauguration. He was a runner for E.F. Hutton at the Chicago Board of Trade. His freshman year, he walked into history class and was spotted by Nancy, a sophomore.
"I told my girlfriend I thought he was pretty cute, so I should ask him out," Nancy says.
"I was much thinner back then," Bill adds.
At the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority, they went to their first dance. Brady was a new pledge at Sigma Chi, and Nancy asked him out within weeks of meeting him. They were married three years later, while Brady was a junior and Nancy was graduating and working for Country Financial, the other big Bloomington insurer.
Brady built up his real estate and home-building company. He also got into politics, helping Dan Brady revive the Young Republicans.
Brady made his first run for office in 1992 -- knocking off a long-time Republican incumbent in the primary by eight votes. Thin margins of victory became a habit.
As a legislator, Brady racked up the conservative, pro-business voting record that Democrats now use to hammer him. He was one of only three legislators to vote against mandating mammogram coverage on insurance policies. He votes against all insurance mandates because he does not want to drive up insurance costs, he says. But he later voted for a bill that did mandate mammogram coverage.
Playing poker with the cautious-to-a-fault, low-betting Barack Obama after a day of voting on the opposite side of bills, Brady teased the future president by saying, "If you dealt with the public's money as conservatively as you do your own, we'd be a lot better off."
Brady left the Illinois House in 2000 to run for congress. He tried to hand off his state house seat to his brother Ed. But Dan Brady wanted to run too. Each Brady family tried to talk the other out of running, but both jumped in and strained all those old family friendships. Dan Brady beat Ed Brady by 47 votes to win Bill’s old seat. Bill Brady lost the congressional race, but was rescued with an appointment to the state senate.
In 2006, Brady launched his first race for governor, coming from nowhere and without much money to finish third behind Judy Baar Topinka and Jim Oberweis.
A 'big picture' guy
At the same time he was building his political resume, Brady was building Brady Homes and his other businesses, some of which are drawing political fire in the current campaign. He cast votes as a legislator that appeared to benefit one of his building projects in Champaign -- though Brady says he never knowingly voted to help one of his project. His family business laid off most of its workers when the housing market tanked. And in what has attracted the most scrutiny, he paid no taxes on his $75,000 legislative salary because of his business losses.
Brady's known as a "big picture" guy. Reporters asking to film him at his messy desk at his Chicago headquarters were surprised when he said, "This is my office," pointing to an empty conference table. "I'm a delegator."
But driving through one of his developments, Brady has one of those Mayor Daley-like attention-to-detail moments as he suddenly stops talking and stares out the window, mouth agape.
"Oh my gosh -- I gotta get more involved," he says. He looks at the puzzled other faces in the car, looks back out the window and asks, "You don't see anything that looks a little out of flavor?"
One house has brightly colored siding. Others are in the process of getting their siding -- mostly brown or white.
"I would not have approved that siding -- it's just too bold of a color," he says. "I'm gonna have a discussion about that siding with somebody. It's not as soft an earth tone as it should be. Look at how bold it is."
Driving around to the front of the house, Brady exhales when he sees the finished product: "It's got a nice curb appeal, though, with the brick. That stone softens it."
SOURCE: Chicago Sun-Times
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