My dear friend Bruce Donnelly died on Memorial Day last week. It has been my privilege to personally know a few truly brilliant people — and brilliant was the word I used more often than any other when describing him to others.
Bruce served as a U.S. diplomat under President Ronald Reagan, an international business consultant for 20 years, and then became, in his words, “a covert conservative political activist.” While with the State Department he served both in Pakistan and Germany (he learned to speak German). In business consulting he lived in Brazil (he learned to speak Portuguese), and traveled a great deal to Britain working on revitalizing its industry in the northern part of the country.
In early 2009 he was on the first national Tea Party phone call with the people that wound up setting up coast to coast rallies after the famous Rick Santelli rant on CNBC.
Bruce rightly ridiculed most of what is considered to be “political consulting.” The consultants always won by being paid big dollars, he said, while the good candidates usually lost their elections. He called think tanks “wishful thinking tanks.” He spent the later part of his life developing and working on the plans for what needed to be done differently in an arena where thinking differently is rare.
Unlike some local talk radio entertainers or people who run political action committees or wishful thinking tanks, Bruce was not able to cause a thrill to run up the legs of the big conservative donors. If he had, the biggest Illinois political donors would not have wasted tens and hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade. If the recipients of those donations knew how to win, they would be winning governing majorities in Illinois.
Bruce and I talked a lot and laughed a lot since we first met in 2009. He had a big heart and he was humble. His great sense of humor helped us endure working in an arena where for the most part, the best and the brightest stay off the field. Illinois is not a fiscal and moral mess by accident.
For a number of years, he battled sizable health issues. With little margin for error, he was felled a week ago at the too-young age of 65 by the incompetence of a handful of medical “professionals.” He had been going to dialysis three days a week for the past seven years. He broke a foot about five years ago and the thing never really seemed to heal properly. He became legally blind a couple of years ago. Last July he underwent a quadruple bypass heart surgery. He was almost done jumping through all the hoops to get on the organ donor transplant list when the virus pandemic hit, when “non-essential” healthcare matters were put on hold. (Organ transplants are non-essential?)
Despite the dialysis and lack of mobility, he continued to work and write and plan. His optimism that we would eventually find important people who would see the value of our idea was rewarded in the weeks leading up to his death. Two consummate political veterans are ready to take the baton and do the necessary things that we proposed.
He knew Illinois can be saved. I am not alone in saying that Bruce Donnelly did more than anyone else to clearly and accurately think through how to save our state.
He is survived by his wife, daughter, and son.
His obituary can be read here.