The new governor of Illinois once was booed on the House floor. When this magazine last profiled Quinn in 1980, Statehouse insiders described him as a gadfly who persistently challenged the government establishment and grabbed headlines by holding Sunday news conferences (see Illinois Issues, February, 1980, page 4).
Gov. Pat Quinn takes issue with the gadfly stereotype. He cites a number of reforms that he spurred by organizing grassroots movements, all in the name of democracy in the Land of Lincoln.
Several perceptions of him, however, have transformed since Rod Blagojevich’s arrest on corruption allegations December 9. Some of Quinn’s most vocal critics now are glad to see him drop the word “lieutenant” from his title.
Even House Speaker Michael Madigan, who led his chamber in the prolonged booing of Quinn in 1976 — and said then that Quinn didn’t deserve to be called a fellow Irishman — changed his tune after Blagojevich’s arrest.
“I think that a Gov. Quinn would take a completely different approach to working with the legislature than Gov. Blagojevich has, and, therefore, there’d be a great improvement in the relations between the two departments of government,” Madigan said the day his chamber formed a special committee to investigate cause for Blagojevich’s impeachment.
There’s widespread hope that Quinn will refresh the atmosphere within the Capitol, although no one knows how he will handle the reins of power or where the former state treasurer would try to steer the state to escape fiscal ruin.
It’s hard to tell. Quinn has been careful to avoid stating opinions on such policies as revenue ideas or construction plans.
“Well, I’m not governor. I’m lieutenant governor,” he said during a January phone conversation, adding that he hasn’t had access to Blagojevich’s budget bureau.
“But if I’m given a different assignment, I will look at the state finances with a clear eye. I don’t think the voters are helped at all by any pretense or trying to hide things under the rug. We need to know the economic facts, and we’ll address them accordingly.”
Gadfly or crusader?
Quinn’s past could give a glimpse into the way he approaches state government and politics in the future. He takes issue with the word “gadfly” because, he says, it describes someone who doesn’t get anything done.
Since the 1970s, he’s been a crusader of sorts for everything from exposing government waste to preventing the name of the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field from becoming something like Preparation H Park at Soldier Field.
He’s an organizer. He says he aims to channel the energy of everyday people to “wake up the powers that be.”
His first petition drive in 1976, for instance, ended the longtime practice of allowing state legislators to collect their entire salaries on their first day in office.
Two years later, when he finished law school at Northwestern University in Evanston, he commemorated the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, but with a twist. He organized a campaign for angered citizens to mail used or unused tea bags to state legislators and then-Gov. James Thompson. The goal was to prevent state officials from granting themselves significant pay raises after their recent elections.
When organizing, “you want to have things that people enjoy doing,” Quinn says.
In 1980, he was at it again, this time trying to change the state Constitution. He led the successful effort to decrease the size of the House from 177 members to 118. Opponents of the so-called cutback amendment say the reduction and the change to single-member districts consolidated power into the hands of a few, contributing to the political stalemate that has paralyzed state government for the past few years.
Former Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, for one, says while Quinn’s proposal raised a legitimate question, she disagreed with his approach.
“He sold it solely on the grounds, ‘Let’s get rid of one-third of these miserable, no-good, lousy politicians. And we’ll save money, and we’ll make everything work better, and besides that, they’re all greedy and corrupt,’” she says. In retrospect, she believes, the change came at the expense of openness, flexibility, outreach and political balance in the Illinois House.
Quinn flatly disagrees, as he frequently does with Netsch on a variety of policy issues, despite belonging to the same Democratic Party.
“[There] just wouldn’t be as many black legislators or Hispanic legislators if we didn’t end this complicated system that was designed to, I think, dilute the votes of racial minorities.”
Besides, he says, the state Senate has been just as clogged with political stalemates, even though that chamber was not affected by the cutback amendment.
Netsch, who taught at Northwestern University School of Law while Quinn attended, says: “Fortunately, I did not have him in class. I always was able to separate my political life from my academic life. That’s one time I might not have been successful.”
In particular, she takes issue with what she describes as Quinn’s strategies to fight for the average Joe, feeding into some of the cynicism that Illinoisans have about their government.
“Even when it’s totally justified — like right now, but at anytime — he talks as if he’s the only one who has the people’s interest at heart. And that there is only one approach — and that is his approach — to what is the people’s interest.”
What some perceive as stubbornness, others see as dedication and determination, says Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children, a privately funded organization in Chicago that has a constant presence in the Illinois Capitol.
“Sometimes, the most important way to move the public conversation is to pose a different point of view and to push it fairly aggressively,” he says.
Stermer has known Quinn since the 1970s, when Quinn introduced him to volunteering for political campaigns. Stermer says they were campaigns of independent- and reform-minded people who ran against the entrenched Chicago Democratic machine.
Quinn’s independent streak links to his school of thought that government is by the people, for the people.
“Many of us tend to think of government as ‘they,’” Stermer says, “whereas Pat — and I hope I’m in this camp, as well — this is our government, and this is us, and these are the choices that we’re making. And so when we get it right, Pat is pleased. And when we don’t get it right, he feels that it’s important to speak and to take action and to shape a better approach.”
That was the case in 1983, when Quinn was integral in starting the Citizens Utility Board. The independent agency advocates for affordable utility rates for residential customers.
David Kolata, executive director of the commonly called CUB, says Quinn remains an important ally.
“I don’t think there’s any question that he takes the consumer perspective on things and is likely to fight for the little guy. That’s what he’s done from the moment he’s been involved in public service, and I would expect that to continue.”
Stermer says rather than a gadfly, Quinn is a crusader, “somebody who has taken on a cause and who is consistent and persistent and stays with it.”
Each has a role to play
Quinn credits his desire to help the less fortunate to his education at Fenwick High School, a Dominican institution in Oak Park. Later, he was a freshman at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The civil rights movement and the Vietnam War also left an imprint before he graduated with a degree in international economics in 1971. He later earned his law degree from Northwestern.
But he also credits his parents, Eileen and the late Patrick Joseph Quinn, a U.S. Navy veteran, for giving him a strong sense of duty and patriotism.
That sense of duty has remained active through his years as lieutenant governor. Elected in 2002, he created the Illinois Military Family Relief Fund to help families recover from the death of an active-duty soldier. He also attends veterans’ funerals, reportedly with no ado.
As part of his Operation Home Front Web site, he also initiated a program where people can donate their unused frequent flier miles to military families who need support to visit injured soldiers.
Other causes range from the environment to eagles, dam safety, alternative fuels, economic development and health initiatives. Quinn once walked 167 miles across Illinois to promote a health care proposal. He annually honors Illinois youth who compete in the National Spelling Bee and encourages service learning through his Chavez Serve and Learn Program, honoring an American folk hero, Cesar Chavez, who devoted his life to helping improve the working conditions of immigrants.
He chairs numerous commissions, including three that aim to preserve
Illinois’ rivers, support rural communities and help downtown business
districts spur economic growth and restore history. And he starts Web
sites designed to bolster grassroots support: www.blackoutsolutions.org for energy conservation and www.operationhomefront.org for veterans support. His own site is www.standingupforillinois.org.
He frequently cites Abraham Lincoln and links his initiatives to preserving the Land of Lincoln.
“I feel that everyone has the duty to take care of those who bear the battle. Those are Abraham Lincoln’s words. And every person has a role to play in supporting those who are defending our democracy.”
Man vs. machine
Quinn’s independent streak in the political arena is applauded by some and poses a concern for others.
He was an assistant to former Gov. Dan Walker, another independent- minded man who bucked old-style Chicago Democratic politics. Quinn was elected state treasurer for one term in 1991.
“The powers that be, they don’t always bless you when you’re running for office,” he says. “You don’t get endorsed by that crowd. But every campaign I’ve been involved in is a volunteer affair, with people from every walk of life and background.”
While treasurer, he pushed for a state law that protects whistleblowers, people who file lawsuits alleging government waste or corruption.
He also strictly scrutinizes those who offer him political contributions, rejecting donations from utility companies, currency exchanges, insurance companies, horse racetracks or casinos.
“And anybody who donates to my campaign knows that it’s only for advancing the public interest, period. That’s that,” he says. “I don’t offer anything other than that.”
David Morrison of the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform says Quinn has a very different approach to fundraising.
“In the way that Blagojevich has put fundraising at the top of everything and raised more money than anyone else in state history, Quinn is at the polar opposite of that continuum. He has not raised much money. He has not cultivated many donors who give to him again and again over time.”
He did receive money from a company owned by Tony Rezko, a former Blagojevich insider who was convicted of federal corruption charges and reportedly is cooperating with federal investigators in Blagojevich’s criminal case. Rezko’s campaign fundraising affected many Illinois politicians. Quinn says he donated the money to charity.
He also received $90,000 from Blair Hull, a Chicago-based businessman who supported many Democrats and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2004.
Hull declined to comment, but Quinn says they met during a 1994 petition
drive to establish term limits for elected officials. Quinn endorsed then-state Sen. Barack Obama over Hull in the 2004 U.S. Senate race.
Quinn also was the only statewide elected official other than Obama to endorse Alexi Giannoulias for state treasurer in 2006. Giannoulias ran against a Democratic candidate backed by Speaker Madigan.
“There were a lot of people who weren’t sure that they wanted me to be the state treasurer because I ran as an independent,” Giannoulias says. “And I think that’s a testament to [Quinn], to be behind someone who he believes in regardless of what the powers that be tell him to do.”
Quinn says he’s not worried about past run-ins with the legislature, including his previous clashes with Madigan.
“That’s pretty much ancient history,” he says, adding, “I get along pretty well with Mike Madigan, I think, today.”
Reformer, compromiser or both?
The same day Blagojevich shocked the nation by appointing former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the U.S. Senate despite statements that the Democratic leadership would deny any Blagojevich appointment, Quinn honored 26 Illinois individuals and organizations with “Environmental Hero Awards” for their commitment to environmental health.
Then he reacted to Blagojevich’s appointment by saying it insulted the state. The dichotomy exemplifies the diverse perceptions of Quinn.
Illinois Republicans have recently labeled him as a “Blagojevich Democrat.” The Illinois governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primary election but run on the same ticket in the general election. Quinn repeatedly has spoken out against Blagojevich since 2006, but he’s been criticized for doing so only after the re-election campaign, not before.
Last year, Quinn lobbied for a measure, which was aimed at Blagojevich, to amend the state Constitution to allow voters to recall elected officials. More than once, former Senate President Emil Jones Jr. reacted heatedly after Quinn publicly stated that the Senate was “up to shenanigans” and intended to kill the recall measure. Jones said that was wrong and disrespectful and called for an apology, which he never received.
Quinn also held a rally outside of one of Blagojevich’s political fundraising events to draw attention to what he thought were inappropriate donations from state contractors, and he joined all of the state’s constitutional officers in urging the legislature to enact more ethics reforms to ban that practice.
All that was before Blagojevich’s arrest. Since the 76-page federal criminal complaint came down in December, Quinn repeatedly has called for the governor to step aside and said on national television that Blagojevich has “unclean hands.” He deems it a crisis.
He has since established a new Illinois Reform Commission, an independent panel intended to be apolitical, charged with designing legislation to prevent wrongful behavior, such as the allegations against Blagojevich. It’s led by Patrick Collins, a former federal prosecutor who headed the Operation Safe Road investigation that ultimately sent former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to prison.
Quinn says the state doesn’t need a cleaning. It needs a fumigating.
His critics and supporters alike say Quinn is clean when it comes to funding his campaigns and prioritizing ethics. But some worry whether as governor, he will work with the legislature and how he will navigate the ship of state in times of fiscal and political crisis. Some were discouraged by what they saw as indecisiveness after Blagojevich’s arrest.
State Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, says while he respects Quinn’s independent streak, he questioned that independence after Quinn altered his response about the appropriate way to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Obama was elected president.
Quinn initially said he favored a special election to replace Obama, a position consistent with his power-of-the-people past. He then told reporters in Springfield that he felt concerned that a special election might take too long and rob Illinois of its right to a second U.S. senator. Shortly after, Quinn says, he learned of a different version of legislation that would prohibit an arrested governor from appointing a replacement. And when a new governor took office — in this case, Quinn — he would fill the seat until a special election resulted in a permanent replacement.
The day-by-day circumstances resulted in the perception that Quinn flip-flopped or was pressured by Capitol Hill Democrats to change his position.
Durkin, for one, says the fluidity of those positions was inconsistent with the Pat Quinn who once held Sunday-night news conferences to defend the rights of the little guy and to demand reforms.
“This is not the Pat Quinn I’ve watched over the years about making sure that people and ordinary citizens had a voice in state government,” Durkin says.
When it was still unclear whether Burris would be seated, Quinn said he supported a special election, but it wouldn’t have happened until, by his estimate, June. So if — or when — he became governor, he wanted to be able to appoint a temporary senator. “I endorsed that. I told people of the House that I was for that.”
Stermer says it was only human for Quinn to develop and modify his opinion about how best to replace Obama in the Senate.
“That Pat wondered out loud doesn’t mean either that he’s somebody who’s sticking his finger up into the wind to see how it’s blowing or somebody who’s stubborn. It means that he’s the kind of person — and I’ve always known him to be this — who is deeply committed to thinking through and vigorously debating what might be the best approach to an urgent public question.”
Legislators already have a wish list for Quinn: Don’t be like Blagojevich. Respect the legislative process. Work with lawmakers to get things done. Don’t govern by news release.
Durkin, who went to the same high school as Quinn and remains friends with his family, describes the governor as a “very nice, likable guy.” He and Quinn just developed polar opposite political views, Durkin says.
“I hope that he will — and I think he’s smart enough to — move to the center and understand that state government isn’t about a big giveaway, considering the debt that we are sitting on and what we’re experiencing all over the nation,” Durkin says. “So I hope that he takes the more centered view of his responsibilities as our next governor.”
Quinn says he sees 2009 as a year for fundamental reforms, something he feels the public wants. There’s potential for a “populist moment,” he said. “It occurs from time to time in national and, hopefully, in our state politics, where the will of the people becomes the law of the land.”
But change can be slow, particularly in state government. Quinn says the battle to reduce the size of the House, for instance, was fought 28 years ago, but some people are still adjusting.
To that, he says, “You’ve got to keep pushing along.”
Bethany Jaeger can be reached at email@example.com.
Illinois Issues, January 2009