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Thursday, Oct. 14, 2004 09:39 pm

The not-so-mighty Quinn

Nobody thought Quinn could keep quiet for as long as he has

Not long ago, Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office threatened Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn with political divorce.

Quinn has been a critic of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority for years, but he was completely cut out of the governor's massive restructuring-and-reform plan. This did not please the formerly outspoken lieutenant governor, and when he made plans to attend a tollway-board hearing to present an alternate reform plan, he was told in no uncertain terms that divorce proceedings would begin if he went ahead.

The governor himself did not deliver the threat, assigning the bad-cop task to his deputy governor. But the message was still crystal-clear: Cross us, and you're through.

Faced with the very real possibility of being dumped from the '06 ticket, Quinn decided to back down, worked out a few compromises, and issued a relatively mild press release instead. Some of those close to Quinn tried to put the best face on the threats, explaining that there was a "transitory mood" and "awkward times" at the office and that all talk of the D-word was behind them now.

Others were a little freaked out by the whole thing and wondered whether their futures were at all secure.

Most of us figured when Quinn was elected lieutenant governor that this particular story would have been written months ago.

Almost nobody thought Quinn could keep quiet for as long as he has.

In defiance of all expectations, he's been "Silent Pat" for two years.

Quinn the consumer advocate didn't utter a peep when the governor packed the Illinois Commerce Commission with pro-utility hacks and cut deals with major utility companies to pass controversial legislation.

The longtime campaign-ethics reformer has remained mum as some of the governor's closest advisers have raised millions of dollars from people and companies that do business with the state or want something from the governor's office.

And the environmental advocate kept his trap shut when the governor worked to site a high-sulfur coal-fired power plant in the already heavily polluted Chicago metropolitan area.

The governor's tollway plan was apparently just too much cognitive dissonance for Quinn to handle.

Quinn has tried to be a team player since day one, even though the Blagojevich crowd didn't support him in the '02 primary and still doesn't trust him. He was primarily responsible for wooing budget director John Filan -- an old and dear friend -- from the private sector, and he has placed his stamp on more Blagojevich proposals than most people realize.

Quinn has also worked hard to strengthen his public image, pushing voter-friendly ideas such as helping veterans and protecting endangered wildlife. The governor would never have the guts to actually try to dump Quinn now, after Quinn has held his tongue for so long and built his credibility to the point where he could fight back with devastating results. The media and a large segment of the public seem to be looking for a reason to go after the governor, and Quinn could provide more than enough ammunition.

So what's he afraid of?

There's the sense of duty imposed on all second bananas, of course. But I think a big problem is that his 1994 loss to George Ryan hangs over Quinn's head like the sword of Damocles -- a continuous reminder of his eight-year exile from statewide office.

Quinn tried to move up the ladder too quickly after just one term as state treasurer, losing the race for secretary of state to Ryan. He worked hard to get back in the game, and now he wants to stick around for a while. The governor's people are a vindictive bunch with loads of campaign cash at their disposal, so Quinn apparently figures he needs to keep swallowing hard until he's safely elected to another four-year term.

This can't be easy for the guy. Unlike Blagojevich, who talks a good game about reform and renewal, Quinn really believes this stuff.

For instance, the governor is so desperate to placate a clearly fed-up downstate electorate and please his utility masters that late last week he indefinitely postponed a serious regulatory review of Illinois' coal-fired power plants. Just hours after his tollway smackdown, Quinn was forced for the umpteenth time to suck it up like a good soldier.

Can this really continue for two more years?

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