Earlier this month I covered the inaugural Reagan Legacy Scholarship Dinner for Ottawa Delivered. The event, held at Pitstick Pavilion near Ottawa, featured a $500 scholarship being awarded to an Ottawa Township High School senior and a lot of fond Republican memories of our nation’s 40th president being shared by those in attendance.

As tends to be the case at such events, I got to interview several political candidates who don’t regularly stump in this part of the state. The following is a column I wrote about my encounter with two Republican candidates for Illinois governor, originally published online and in print Nov. 12.

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Last weekend’s inaugural Reagan Legacy Scholarship Dinner proved fruitful for me as a political reporter. Since Ottawa isn’t Chicago, Springfield or another Illinois city comparable in size, we usually don’t get a lot of visits from statewide-office seekers until crunch time right before a close election.

The dinner, which originally was to feature GOP rising star U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Peoria) as its main speaker (the health-care reform debate kept him in Washington, D.C., that day), was attended by two of the seven men vying for the Republican nomination for governor: state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) and DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom (R-Naperville). I talked with both of them separately before dinner began.

I found Dillard easily, considering he was wearing a big button with his name on it. (And by big, I mean the size of my fist.) He exuded confidence when asked how his campaign is going.

“I feel perfectly positioned at this point of the campaign,” Dillard said.

Two days earlier, the seven GOP candidates for governor – which also include state Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), former state GOP chairman Andy McKenna (R-Chicago), former state Attorney General Jim Ryan (R-Elmhurst), political commentator Dan Proft (R-Wheaton) and government transparency advocate Adam Andrzejewski (R-Hinsdale) – all debated together for the first time. While complimenting the tone of the debate, Dillard couldn’t resist poking at a couple of his opponents.

“It was polite and professional and it was nice to see Andy McKenna and Jim Ryan get out of the Rose Garden and come out of hibernation,” Dillard said. “Most of the candidates have been campaigning statewide, not just at the Hilton in Chicago.”

A state senator since 1994, Dillard served as former Gov. Jim Edgar’s chief of staff, former Gov. Jim Thompson’s director of legislative affairs, and a judge for the Illinois Court of Claims. He believes his experience and his track record of clean ethics make him the frontrunner in the race. The main point he emphasizes is his desire to make Illinois a “destination economy” through what he promises would be “the most aggressive job-recruitment program in this state’s history.”

As soon as my interview with Dillard concluded, Schillerstrom’s assistant suddenly appeared to ask if I’d like to talk to his boss. Reporters who are seen talking to one candidate typically draw others like moths to light. Not that I’m complaining, but it’s funny how that works, isn’t it?

Anyway, my first impression of Schillerstrom was his booming voice (which was later amplified when he used a microphone to address the crowd). Like Dillard, he expressed confidence in his campaign.

“I think it’s going very well,” Schillerstrom said. “My message is really resonating with the people of Illinois.”

That message, he said, emphasizes the importance of stabilizing the state’s economy while practicing fiscal responsibility. He said that under his leadership, DuPage County cut property taxes in seven of the last 10 years. Noting that DuPage County has more residents than six states, Schillerstrom said his job as county chairman is akin to being governor of a small state.

“We can take that approach to Springfield,” Schillerstrom said. “I’m not from Springfield. I’m not from that culture. I don’t think like they do. I believe in balancing our budget every year. If we don’t have it, we don’t spend it.”

The opportunity for face-to-face interviews with these statewide candidates was, to quote another former governor, “golden.” I hope more candidates from both sides of the political aisle visit Ottawa soon so I get the chance to interview them in person, too.

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