Challenger cites experience in prosecutor's race

Both candidates for Sangamon County state's attorney say experience is important.

After four years in the county prosecutor's office, Dan Wright, a Republican who was appointed state's attorney in 2018, says he's demonstrated that he deserves a four-year term. Michael Drake, the Democratic challenger, counters that he has spent more years practicing criminal law than Wright.

Drake spent eight years as a prosecutor in Cook County before former state's attorney Patrick Kelley hired him in the 1990s to handle criminal cases in Sangamon County. Kelley, a Republican, has endorsed Wright and says it was not a difficult choice, although he considers Drake, a former college classmate at Bradley University, to be a fine lawyer.

While Drake may have more years as a prosecutor, Wright notes that the challenger's full-time prosecutorial job ended two decades ago. Recent experience, he says, matters. "I've been in the trenches the last four years," Wright says. "There is no better experience than doing the job well."

Wright's record as a prosecutor isn't perfect. In 2017, Johnny Priester was acquitted of possessing contraband in the jail – he argued that he needed a shank to protect himself from other inmates. Wright lost that case, but he won the following year, when Priester, who spent nearly six years awaiting trial, got an 85-year sentence for first-degree murder in a 2012 shooting. Priester had rejected plea bargains in the murder case. Last spring, a jury rejected attempted murder charges brought by Wright and convicted Guy Whitlow of aggravated battery and aggravated reckless driving for intentionally hitting a man with his car in Auburn. Sentenced to four years, Whitlow is due for parole in February.

Wright says he doesn't duck hard cases. "I think that the people of Sangamon County understand that we need a state's attorney who will come into court and not try just slam-dunk cases," Wright says. "It's my job to try tough cases."

Drake, a sole practitioner and former partner at the law firm of Brown, Hay and Stephens, notes that Wright, a former partner at the same firm who focused on civil law, had little experience as a criminal lawyer before former state's attorney John Milhiser hired him in 2016. Within a year, Wright became first assistant state's attorney and was appointed to the top post in 2018 by the Sangamon County Board.

"He went straight to the head of the class and was first assistant under John Milhiser, anticipating that he would walk into the state's attorney position," Drake said during a recent interview with local radio personality Sam Madonia.

Wright says that he's long wanted to work in public service and that he took a pay cut when he left private practice to work as a prosecutor. "It was not a decision that was lightly made," he says "My wife is a saint for allowing me to do that."

County Democrats chose Drake to run last spring, after no challengers from either party surfaced to run against Wright. Sangamon County voters last installed a Democrat as state's attorney in 1948, the same year that Harry Truman jubilantly held up a newspaper with a headline wrongly proclaiming him the winner in the presidential race.

Drake acknowledges a tough state's attorney race, given political history. He says the state's attorney's office, as well as judgeships, shouldn't be partisan posts.

"It's a real obstacle in that we have always had a strong Republican presence in the county," Drake says. "It's really hard to get your message out there, particularly outside town, and to get people to think about this race differently. I'm asking people to take a step back and take a deep breath and drop the R and the D from names."

Drake raised some courthouse eyebrows a decade ago when he practiced law while also employed as inspector general for the state comptroller's office, a post that pays six figures. Drake, who was appointed to the state post in 2004 and served 14 years, got approval from both former Comptroller Dan Hynes and the state Executive Ethics Commission to practice law while also holding down his state job.

This is Drake's first run for public office. After being appointed to a seat on the Springfield Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Board, which oversees Bank of Springfield Center, Wright, a former Republican committeeman, lost a bid to stay on the board in 2011, losing the election by 79 votes.

Wright started raising money early last year and has a big financial advantage over Drake, who had raised $4,300 as of June 30, according to his most recent filing with the Illinois State Board of Elections, which requires candidates to file quarterly financial reports and also report contributions of $1,000 or more as they come in. Wright, who had more than $23,000 in his campaign account on June 30, has raised more than $26,000 in contributions of at least $1,000 since early August. Contributors include labor unions, Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter and former state Sen. Larry Bomke.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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