Minger: A year into state's attorney post

Nick Vlahos

Once upon a time, Greg Minger sold business suits at a department store in a Peoria shopping mall.

Today, as Woodford County state's attorney, Minger deals with suits of a less tangible, more complex nature. But given his background - and particularly his roots - he considers this job an excellent fit.

"I enjoy the work. I really love being back home," said Minger, who was appointed Woodford County's top prosecutor one year ago Wednesday after he spent almost a decade working in Rockford.

"It was a life-changing thing, to move your whole family to the area where you grew up, an area you have pride in," said Minger, who was reared on a farm north of Eureka. "That was a big reason to come back. I'd like to help continue to make it a great place."

It appears Minger will have that opportunity for at least four more years.

Despite being a relatively recent appointee - he replaced Mike Stroh, who became a judge - Minger is unopposed in the Republican primary March 20 for a full term. As is typical in Woodford County, no Democrats have filed to run for the position.

"I was surprised. It's a confidence builder," the 36-year-old Minger said about the lack of a political challenge. "I can transition away from this being someone else's office to now it's more my office.

"The good thing is, I can concentrate more on my job and not worry about the political aspect of it. I try not to. Saying it's never crossed my mind would not be the truth, but my decisions are not politically motivated. And for this office to run effectively, they can't be."

Score one for the law

Political motivations - and, for that matter, legal ones - weren't exactly on Minger's mind while he was a youth. Back then, he envisioned himself as a teacher.

That's part of why Minger majored in English in the mid-to-late 1990s at the University of Illinois, but his career choice vacillated between education and litigation. Thanks in part to a cousin who was an attorney and a grandfather who was a C-SPAN cable-television junkie, the law won.

But law school isn't cheap. Hence the year Minger spent schlepping suits and working as an automated loan collector for a Bloomington-area bank.

The suit job was good, Minger said. The bank job? Not so much.

"You see people who can be at their worst," he said. "They may not have had (money), and you try to work something out."

Minger used his earnings to help pay for his time at Northern Illinois University College of Law. There he met his future wife, Tara. And he also met his future mistress, the courtroom.

Minger assumed he'd become a transaction lawyer or a corporate attorney following graduation. But that all changed during his final year at NIU, when he worked part-time in the Kane County State's Attorney's Office.

"I fell in love with prosecuting," said Minger, who cut his teeth in the drunken-driving division. "I never thought I'd do it, but once I started doing it, I loved it. And I've been doing it ever since."

'Culture shock' in Rockford

In 2001, love also led Minger to Rockford, where Tara accepted a job with a private law firm. He took a job as an assistant in the Winnebago County State's Attorney's Office.

Rockford is much like Peoria demographically and in the volume and nature of crimes. Woodford County is like neither of those places, as Minger soon discovered.

"At first, it was a little bit of a culture shock," he said about Rockford. "There were a lot of different things I'd never seen before, like drugs."

In an office that had as many as 40 attorneys, Minger started near the bottom, with misdemeanors. He worked his way up to other, bigger things, in civil and criminal divisions.

Minger didn't realize it then, but that experience in the big city would help in his return to the small town.

"I think it provides you a broader perspective that you can bring to a local job," said Woodford County Board member Mike Hinrichsen, chairman of the county offices committee. "I'm sure he had a lot of tough issues he dealt with up in Rockford.

"You never know when that experience is going to come in handy, but when it does, you're going to be glad it's there."

At that point, however, Minger was glad he was in Rockford. He and his wife had started a family and purchased a house in Roscoe, a fast-growing suburb north of the city.

"I was satisfied," he said.

Not a big-city guy

Then in late 2010, Stroh ascended from Woodford County state's attorney to associate judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit. Then Minger received a telephone call from his father, Mike, who wondered if his son would be interested in the new job opening at the county courthouse.

The opportunity appealed to the younger Minger, professionally and personally.

"I'm not a big-city guy at all, or even a large-town guy," said Minger, whose wife grew up in a small town in North Dakota.

Minger sent his resume to the Woodford County Republican Central Committee, which was responsible for forwarding a candidate to the County Board for its approval. The committee interviewed Minger along with eight other candidates. Then came the wait.

"The longer it took, the more wrapped up I got into it," he said. "I went from 'This is a long shot' to 'Wow, this could actually happen.' "

When it did happen - last Jan. 10, when the central committee picked him - it almost was too much for Minger to comprehend.

"If you came to me four years ago and said, 'Are you going to be the state's attorney in Woodford County?' I would have said, 'No, I don't even live there,' " Minger said.

'Good job for us'

Now, he and Tara and their three sons do live there - in a rental house in the country. Once the house in Roscoe is sold, Minger plans to move his family into one of the county's villages or cities.

As for his office, Minger didn't really undertake a housecleaning. His assistant state's attorney - Pete Dluski, who had been a candidate for the top job - left in April for a private practice in Pekin. He was replaced by Josh Versluys, who had the same job in Knox County.

Another assistant, Julie Keller, and two support-staff members join Versluys on Minger's staff. The state's attorney said he couldn't have asked for a better transition.

Minger also has had to do some transitioning. Not only is he the top prosecutor in the county, but he also is legal adviser for other county offices. That aspect of his job takes considerable time.

"It's their decision to make the policies, but I try to keep them within the bounds of the law," he said. "I try to be a straight shooter. I tell them what the law says, and if I can think of any practical advice as well as legal advice."

Much of that advice is given to the County Board. Hinrichsen is happy with what he's heard so far, as is veteran County Board member Larry Whitaker.

"I think he's done a good job for us," Whitaker said. "We're not very easy to represent. We're not a very good client for him."

The client with whom Minger might deal the most is the Woodford County sheriff, Jim Pierceall. In some areas, the relationship between the two wings of law enforcement can be strained, but this version of the "Law & Order" television program seems to receive top ratings from the main players.

"He'll explain his decisions to you, why he thinks there should be a change or not a change, which is a good thing," Pierceall said. "We never used to get that before."

Pierceall said Minger has helped lower overtime costs for the sheriff's department by adjusting the scheduling of officers' court appearances. In what Pierceall said was an uncommon move, the state's attorney also has ridden on night patrols by sheriff's deputies, to get a better idea of what their jobs entail.

"He's got the desire ... the enthusiasm to do the job," the sheriff said.

Lines of communication

Minger said he wants to continue to broaden the lines of communication throughout the county. Law-enforcement officials have his cellphone number, he said, and they're free to call whenever necessary.

He also wants to continue efforts to update and modernize the technological aspects of his office.

Although he isn't opposed for election, Minger also will have to perform some political functions eventually.

"But at this point in time, I'd rather concentrate on the job, the day-to-day operations of this office," he said.

Thus far, it's all been part of a more-than-happy homecoming.

"I think there's been a lot of good things happen," Minger said about the past year. Then, with a laugh, he also said:

"One of the biggest is nothing's fallen apart."

Unlike a cheap suit, perhaps.