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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008 05:18 am

Governor in waiting

What Pat Quinn has done to get ready

A populist in uncharted territory.

Patrick Joseph Quinn’s world was turned on its head on the morning of Dec. 9, 2008. Ever the outsider, Quinn has positioned himself as a populist, taking up the causes of regular folks. Self-righteous, street smart, tireless and a skilled organizer with a knack for bluntness, Quinn has been a stone in the shoe of the Illinois political establishment for three decades.

But with the arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich last week, Quinn went from maverick to main man. He is the person who would become governor should Blagojevich resign or be ousted by impeachment.

Quinn, who celebrated his 60th birthday Dec. 16, moved closer to being handed the keys to the executive mansion this week when the Illinois House assembled a panel to consider whether Blagojevich should be impeached. For his part, the governor has retained an attorney and refuses to step down.

The populist Quinn now finds himself in uncharted territory. For the past 30 years he’s made a career of throwing monkey wrenches into various political machines. Now Quinn is poised to ascend to the top of the food chain.

Sharks have already begun to circle. Appearing on FOX News Channel and calling for a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, state Republican chairman Andy McKenna took aim:

“You know, Lt. Gov. Quinn, we feel, is tainted as well,” McKenna said, saying Quinn reneged on his previous support for a special election.

As the new state treasurer, 1991.

“Just a few days ago the first thing that [Quinn] came out with was that he was for the special election. And in his particular political career, he’s been the largest advocate for direct elections, supporting referendums throughout the times he’s served in office, so this is a real significant flip-flop. We wonder why he’s doing it,” McKenna said.

Republicans have also wasted no time in running television ads critical of Quinn and even setting up a Facebook group to rally support for an election.

Quinn knows that he must walk a fine line.

At his first downstate news conference after the governor’s arrest, he attempted to exude confidence in his leadership ability but was careful not to get into too many specifics; after all, Blagojevich is still the governor, he pointed out several times. A fundraising event, scheduled before Blagojevich’s arrest, was turned into a holiday reception — Quinn’s office even contacted a Washington, D.C., newspaper, The Hill, to alert them of the change — and no donations were accepted at the door.

Something needs to shake loose soon, everyone agrees, because Illinois desperately needs leadership. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has asked the Supreme Court to declare the governor incompetent; her father, House Speaker Mike Madigan, this week began the impeachment process.

Meanwhile, the state is running a budget deficit of $5 billion. And thanks to Blagojevich’s legal troubles, Standard and Poor’s has placed Illinois’ bond rating on a credit watch, which put the kibosh on a short-term borrowing plan that was being worked out between the governor, Comptroller Dan Hynes and Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

With the 2010 campaign for governor already taking shape, one wonders if Quinn can be effective in Springfield or if he’ll be rendered powerless as he becomes the whipping boy for every gubernatorial hopeful in the state, including those in his own party.

“If Quinn has enough good proposals, backed by good people and backed by the media, if Republicans try to thwart it, then they’re on a slippery slope themselves,” says Gene Callahan, a former aide to Democrats U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon and to Paul Simon during Simon’s tenure as lieutenant governor.

Callahan, who says he’s followed Quinn’s career since the mid-1970s, says Quinn has evolved from being “mercurial and volatile” into a respected and competent public servant. “Blagojevich makes him appear to be a statesman,” Callahan says. “Sometimes you don’t know what kind of governor a person is going to be until he gets there. It’s hard to judge a lieutenant governor.”

Quinn made his political bones in 1975 as patronage chief to Gov. Dan Walker. At the time Roland Burris served in Walker’s cabinet as head of the agency that preceded Central Management Services.

Quinn, then treasurer, with Springfield Mayor Ossie Langfelder, left, and other officials, announcing a new state finance initiative, 1991.

“Pat Quinn was a very energetic, no-nonsense individual, very serious about the people and government representation,” recalls Burris, who owns a Chicago-based political consulting firm. “And guess what? He hasn’t changed.”

After leaving public service, Quinn started earning his rabble-rouser reputation, drawing the ire of elected officials when he co-founded the Coalition for Political Honesty in 1976. The group led the charge to ban members of the General Assembly from receiving their full salary on the first day of the legislative session or from holding other elected public offices, a practice commonly known as “double-dipping” that is still in practice today.

Rather than asking legislators to adopt the reforms, Quinn organized a statewide petition drive. His leaflets, which asked, “Is there any job in the private sector that pays a year in advance?,” appealed to average citizens, and the coalition eventually collected more than a half-million signatures. Although the Illinois Supreme Court ultimately rejected the petitions, keeping the question off the 1976 ballot, lawmakers got rid of the up-front pay.

In the early 1990s, Quinn tussles with one of his sons, as Sam Cahnman of Springfield looks on.

Two years later, when lawmakers voted themselves a salary increase, Quinn convinced 40,000 voters to mail teabags to Gov. Jim Thompson in what would become known as the Illinois Tea Party, after the Boston insurrection that helped spark the Revolutionary War. Quinn’s birthday, Dec. 16, 1948, was the 175th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, he likes to point out.

Quinn even chastised his former colleague and fellow Democrat Burris, then the Illinois comptroller, for not attempting to block the pay hike. Burris doesn’t recall Quinn’s criticism, but offers: “He may have come after me on something but that would be Pat.”

Perhaps his most notable success came in 1980 with his effort to slash the number of members of the Illinois house by a third, from 177 to 118 members, which he argued would make lawmakers more responsive to constituents. Known as the Cutback Amendment to the constitution, like many of Quinn’s causes, it proved popular with the public but not so much with pols.

Many Democrats were incensed over the cutback, which changed three-member House districts into two-member districts and ended cumulative voting, a process that gave minority members the ability to elect some legislative leaders. Some progressives have never forgiven Quinn for the cutback, because it virtually eliminated liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans from the House.

“He certainly wasn’t a go-along, get-along guy who worked his way through the Democratic political machine in Chicago. He was always an independent,” says Springfield attorney and alderman Sam Cahnman, who met Quinn in 1976 while Cahnman was in law school. “His political success is due to the fact that he has a keen sense of being able to work on issues that are popular with the public.”

Quinn married Julie Hancock in 1982, according to media reports, with whom he would eventually have two sons, Patrick Joseph in 1983 and David in 1984. The couple has since divorced.

With his man o’ the people bona fides solidified, Quinn went on to secure a seat on the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals in 1982, before spearheading yet another petition drive that created the Citizens Utility Board. He sought a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on legislators but the Supreme Court again intervened, striking down the proposal as unconstitutional. Quinn was elected state treasurer in 1990. His penchant for bucking the Democratic machine came back to bite him four years later when he challenged incumbent Secretary of State George Ryan, whose 10-to-1 fundraising advantage proved too much for Quinn to overcome.

Compiled from official biography, media reports, and Wikipedia.

In 1996, after an unsuccessful bid for Paul Simon’s spot in the U.S. Senate (Dick Durbin won the seat and still holds it), Quinn returned to public life in 2002 when he survived the Democratic primary for the privilege of joining the ticket with the party’s gubernatorial pick, then-U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich. Quinn was elected lieutenant governor in 2002 and again in 2006.

The only thing the Illinois constitution says about responsibilities of Quinn’s office is this: “The lieutenant governor shall perform the duties and exercise the powers in the executive branch that may be delegated to him by the governor and that may be prescribed by law.”

May is the operative word. By all accounts, Blagojevich hasn’t given Quinn a whole lot to do. In fact, Quinn declared recently, the two haven’t spoken in over a year. So Quinn has had to get creative. His office has taken a lead role on environmental policy, rural and historic-district economic development, and veterans issues. Officially, he chairs the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, Illinois Main Street Advisory Council, Broadband Deployment Council, Illinois River Coordinating Council, the Illinois Delegation to the Great Lakes Commission, and the Illinois Green Government Coordinating Council.

Quinn also launched the Web portal “Operation Homefront,” established the Illinois Military Family Relief Fund, which assists families of active-duty National Guard members and reservists, and attends the funerals of Illinois soldiers.

Cahnman, whose candidacy for alderman of Ward 5 was supported by the lieutenant governor, says Quinn isn’t the publicity hound many people think he is:

“This notion that he’s a gadfly and he’s just looking for publicity, I don’t know how anyone could say that when you take a look at the work he’s done with veterans. He hasn’t gotten publicity from that but those families really appreciate it.”

In recent years, Quinn has become
increasingly vocal in his opposition to Blagojevich, launching initiatives in opposition to several Blagojevich policies. For example, when the governor announced the closure of state recreational areas, Quinn set up an online petition to “Save Our State Parks.” He also became one of the most outspoken supporters of amending the state constitution to recall state officials, as well as the unsuccessful effort to hold the state’s first constitutional convention since 1970.

People are beginning to ask why it took so long for Quinn to distance himself from the governor. At a recent news conference, when a reporter asked about Quinn’s defense of the governor when questions surfaced in 2006 about a $1,500 birthday check to his daughter, Quinn told the reporter he took Blagojevich at his word, but might have made a mistake in saying that.

Callahan says Quinn “will have to do something dramatic for the cause of good government” and to prove he’s up to the job.

“He can’t sit back on his haunches. Illinois is in bad, bad shape right now. We’re in bad shape economically. We’re in bad shape morally.”

Both Cahnman and former state attorney general Burris believe that things have gotten so bad that even Blagojevich’s enemies are willing to give Quinn a chance to govern.

Burris says Quinn has chilled out since their days working for Gov. Walker. “Everyone mellows with age but he’s got that intensity for the people. A lot of people resent his actions and try to classify him as a gadfly or a bomb thrower or a troublemaker. Pat is just dedicated to good government,” he says.

Cahnman agrees. “At this point, I think that many people who disliked him early on, now with the perspective of what’s gone for the last six years, they look at him in a very favorable light,” Cahnman says.

He continues: “I’m sure he’s learned from mistakes from the past administration, including the Blagojevich administration, that being confrontational is not the best way to accomplish your goals. I think the legislature is just dying to have a governor who they can work with, after this last governor.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinosimes.com

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