Jim Edgar was born July 22, 1946, in Oklahoma, where his parents had moved to find work. However, the family moved back to Coles County when Edgar was still a toddler. He developed an avid interest in politics, helping Dwight David Eisenhower win a mock class election while in first grade and surprising his Democratic parents. The following year, Edgar’s father, Cecil, was killed in an automobile accident.
Educated in the Charleston school system, Edgar enrolled at Eastern Illinois University, serving as student body president before graduating in 1968. While at Eastern, he met and married his wife, Brenda. The couple has two children.
Edgar’s first foray into politics was as a legislative intern to Illinois Senate Republican leader W. Russell Arrington. He later worked for House Speaker W. Robert Blair before running for state representative from Charleston in 1974. Edgar finished third in the primary in the only political defeat of his career. However, Edgar won election to the seat in 1976 and was re-elected two years later. Edgar left the legislature late in his second term to become Governor Jim Thompson’s top lobbyist.
In 1980, Edgar, a surprise Republican candidate for Secretary of State, won election. At age 34, he became the youngest Secretary of State in Illinois in the 20th century. Known for his quiet, studious demeanor, Edgar was a departure from such flamboyant Republican leaders as Thompson and George Ryan and was known for his penchant of wearing T-shirts, even in the State Capitol.
As Secretary of State, Edgar fought for stiffer drunken driving penalties and also instituted requirements for mandatory auto insurance for Illinois drivers. He also spearheaded the effort to construct a new building for the State Library. Edgar is remembered as a great friend of Illinois libraries, credited partially to his own love of books. Jim and Brenda Edgar were both avid readers who owned a large personal library. During his tenure as Secretary, Edgar maintained a large collection of Illinois history books on loan from the State Library in his office. In 1986, Edgar was reelected by the widest plurality in state history and was named one of 30 “rising stars of American politics” by U.S. News and World Report.
When Thompson chose not to run for a fifth term in 1990, Edgar was tapped as the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Running on a platform of fiscal responsibility and additional funding for education and early childhood programs, he narrowly defeated Democrat Neil Hartigan by 84,000 votes. It was the first time since 1928 that an Illinois Governor was elected to succeed a member of his own party.
Edgar strove to reduce the size of state government during his first term and advocated better prenatal care and preschool education. He was also forced to deal with the destructive flood of 1993, which led him to devise a makeshift command center in Springfield. As he neared the end of his term in the summer of 1994, he underwent emergency quadruple bypass surgery. Edgar signed his fiscal 1995 budget from his hospital room just days after surgery.
His re-election campaign in 1994 was never in doubt, as he retained widespread popularity and defeated his Democratic opponent, Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, by a 2-to-1 margin. Edgar carried 101 of the state’s 102 counties. The governor’s approval ratings were so high that the Chicago Tribune labeled him second only to basketball great Michael Jordan in terms of statewide popularity.
Edgar remained highly popular in his second term, backed by a strong economy and a growing state surplus. He chose not to run for a third term in 1998, when he was again hospitalized for chest pains. Supporters would repeatedly summon the former governor to run for other offices over the next decade. In 2004, Edgar was urged to enter the race to fill outgoing Republican U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald’s seat. He declined, and the seat eventually went to future President Barack Obama.