BANGOR, Maine — Maine native Keith Farnham is making his foray into the world of Illinois politics at an interesting, if controversial, time.
The 61-year-old Democrat representing House District 43 will be sworn in with his legislative colleagues at a ceremony in Springfield, Ill., later this week. Among the first tasks for the new Illinois Legislature — Farnham included — will be to deal with the fallout over the state’s recently disgraced governor, Rod Blagojevich.
“When I decided to run for office, one of my biggest concerns was the lack of truth and honesty in government,” Farnham said. “It saddens me to see the problems our governor has brought upon our great state.”
Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell the Senate seat left vacant when Barack Obama was elected president.
Though Farnham has been a businessman in Illinois for three decades and is now a state politician, he said he never strays too far from his Maine roots. He was born in Shirley, grew up in Bangor and graduated from Bangor High School in 1967, around the same time as some other Maine politicians, including former Gov. John McKernan and former state Sen. W. Tom Sawyer.
“The town I come from, Elgin [Ill.], is so similar to Bangor,” Farnham said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a river town; there are distinct east and west sides; it has an old industrial base; and a downtown went away and wants to come back.”
Farnham admitted he got into politics almost by accident.
For 25 years, he was a commercial painting contractor in Greater Chicago. The more involved he became in painting association lobbying, the more his reputation grew. When the Illinois Democratic Party was looking for candidates to challenge Ruth Munson, a Republican incumbent, for the House District 43 seat in 2008, Farnham’s name came up.
“There was a lot of attention paid to my race,” he said. “We knew it would be an uphill battle to unseat Ruth Munson. Nobody thought I would win.”
Munson had name recognition as a two-term Republican in a heavily Republican area, Farnham said. “Once I committed to running, they put some staff around me, and my job basically was to walk the neighborhoods for eight months.”
When the votes were counted on Election Day, the Maine native’s margin of victory was just 322 votes.
Farnham described his political leanings as socially progressive but fiscally conservative.
He had not yet been sworn in last week when the Illinois House voted 114-1 to impeach Blagojevich for alleged abuse of power, including improperly spending tax money, adopting programs without legislative approval and violating state hiring laws.
The House began impeachment proceedings after federal authorities arrested Blagojevich on Dec. 9. He is accused of, among other things, attempting to sell an appointment to fill President-elect Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat for political favors. A two-thirds vote of the Senate is required to remove the governor from office and disqualify him from holding any public office in Illinois.
Blagojevich has denied wrongdoing.
“Since the governor’s arrest, I have been vocal about the need for him to resign from office,” Farnham said. “Now that he has decided not to and the House has voted to impeach him, it is very important that the Land of Lincoln move forward and work together to restore the public’s trust in government.”
He said Blagojevich’s recent legal issues don’t sour the entire Illinois political climate.
“My experience has been that, at least in my area, things are pretty straight,” Farnham said. “I don’t see any shady deals or anyone who thinks you run for office to get rich.”
It’s likely the Maine native will help play a role in the next chapter of Illinois politics, one he hopes is better than the current chapter. Still, he said his home state is never far from his mind.
“I still come back from time to time to visit family,” he said. “I’m so proud of my roots in Maine.”