Illinois Governor Quinn's Chief of Staff, alumnus Ryan Croke, talks about his time at U of I
by Bernard Schoenburg
In November, before a Senate executive appointments committee hearing got underway at the Statehouse, Ryan Croke was in the audience area carrying on a conversation with Janice Smith-Warshaw.
This was obvious to observers, as they were talking in sign language — something Croke, the 30-year-old who took over as chief of staff for Gov. Pat Quinn in September — has used since childhood.
Smith-Warshaw was approved by the committee and later the full Senate as superintendent of the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville.
At a recent interview in his Statehouse office, Croke noted that his parents were both deaf from birth.
“American Sign Language was my first language,” said Croke, who was brought up in Wheeling. “And I find my ability to sign (is) something that comes in handy all the time.”
Croke describes his job as “24/7.”
“I spend a lot of time in the office, and I find myself responding to telephone calls and emails at all hours of the day and night,” he said. “I've had that expectation for as long as I've worked for Governor Quinn. He is a demanding, hard-working, aggressive executive. … It's a demanding, nonstop job. But we have a demanding, nonstop governor.”
Croke, who is paid $130,000 a year, took over for Jack Lavin, who had worked for Quinn in the state treasurer's office and ran the state's commerce agency under Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Lavin — Quinn's third chief of staff after Jerry Stermer (now Quinn's budget director) and Michelle Saddler (now secretary of the Department of Human Services) — had been paid $170,000 annually when he left the Quinn administration in the fall to go to the private sector.
Croke said he got interested in government though classwork at Wheeling High School, where he also was on the debate team. He said his family was nonpolitical, but he “was always interested in public issues,” and carried that interest to the University of Illinois. He studied communications and political science and got a master's in communications, all at the Urbana-Champaign campus.
It was while he was in graduate school — where his thesis was on access to telecommunications for people with hearing impairments — that he learned from a fellow researcher of a job posting from then-Lt. Gov. Quinn's office.
“So on a whim I applied for that job,” Croke said. “I did not know anybody in the office. I did not know Pat Quinn at the time.”
“I got a call for an interview. I came in,” Croke said. “I got to meet with the lieutenant governor.”
“I got immediate exposure to a number of his priorities,” Croke said of Quinn, including economic development in rural areas.
“I staffed the broadband deployment council. I worked on veterans' issues. I worked on, you name it, the Illinois River coordinating council.”
When Quinn inherited the governor's office following impeachment and ouster of Blagojevich, Croke also went to the governor's office. Before getting his current job, he was deputy chief of staff, overseeing state agencies including State Police, Corrections, the Emergency Management Agency, Historic Preservation, Natural Resources, and Agriculture.
Croke said that he is able to express his own ideas to the governor.
“He listens to a lot of people, including me,” Croke said, “and we have vigorous discussions about a whole range of issues, and ultimately, he decides. And I think many of us here are fortunate that he shares our fundamental values and priorities and we work with him to carry out those priorities.”
“When I disagree, I say so,” he added. “He encourages us to offer dissent.”
There are also many meetings, he said, generally including what can be hourslong gatherings with the governor at the Executive Mansion each night of the legislative session.
“There's not a day that goes by that he's not calling to talk through public policy issues and happenings around Illinois, to see, well what can we do better; what do we need to do on priorities A, B and C; how are we getting the budget passed,” Croke said. “It's a nonstop gauntlet.”
Read more at the State Journal-Register.
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