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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009 04:06 am

Pat Quinn has a tough act to follow

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Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks during a Jan. 30 press conference.
Michael Tercha/MCT

Before Rod Blagojevich came along, Pat Quinn was often ridiculed as a camera-hungry huckster with lots of ideas and little follow-through.

But after six years of Blagojevich’s bomb-throwing, empty promises, flat-out lies, needless political wars and miserable failures, finally topped off with a shocking display of corruption and self-immolation, our new Gov. Quinn looks like a statesman by comparison.

Many of us are so shell-shocked since Blagojevich’s arrest and so thoroughly sick of seeing that awful man on our TV screens 24/7 that Quinn suddenly feels like a rush of fresh air.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Quinn was infamous for using every PR gimmick in the book to attract television cameras. In the process, he alienated pretty much the entire political establishment. But last week, after he was sworn in as our 41st governor, Quinn said that Illinois needed “humble” leadership and promised to work closely with everyone in government to move the state forward.

As Quinn has said, we do, indeed, need far more cooperation at the top levels of government. We need a healthy respect for the process and the principle of separation of powers. We need a more quiet, humble leadership. We need a far more rational, inclusive and open-minded approach to budgeting and policymaking.

I have gained quite a lot of respect for Quinn in the past few years. It started when I learned that he was attending the funerals and wakes of Illinois soldiers who were killed in our two foreign wars. He never tipped off the media about what he was doing. He didn’t speak at the events unless asked. He didn’t glad-hand the bereaved. Quinn just slipped into the somber ceremonies unannounced, paid his respects and left when it was over. And he always asked permission before attending. If the families didn’t want him there, he didn’t go.

Now, that’s a class act, I thought at the time. Still do, in fact.

But some of the “old” Pat Quinn reemerged last year while he was still lieutenant governor during an intense legislative battle over a constitutional amendment for recalling elected officials.

The recall bill passed the House, but the Senate’s sponsor had been quoted as saying that the proposal was “stupid.”

Quinn shot back that “certain members” of the Senate were preparing a “phony baloney... sneak attack” on the recall proposal, then spent days holding press conferences throughout the state and meeting with newspaper editorial boards.

The reaction was not pretty. The Senate sponsor, Donne Trotter, was so infuriated by Quinn’s publicity tour that he refused to shake Quinn’s hand at a subsequent committee hearing. Trotter overreacted, of course, but Quinn’s attempt to use blunt force to push the proposal through the Senate failed, and did severe damage to his relationships with several members of that chamber.

Still, Quinn didn’t call out senators by name, and did his very best to maintain a calm demeanor while the Senate committee members tore into him with relish, and even agreed to support a retaliatory proposal which would have terminated the lieutenant governor’s service if the governor was ever recalled.

So, I suppose that’s progress.

He now has a much larger bully pulpit as governor, however. Legislators are awful tired of being bossed around and publicly humiliated by Rod Blagojevich over the past six years, so Quinn has a delicate task ahead.

One of his first orders of business, he has said, is passing new laws to prevent future Blagojevich-style disasters. Only when the public is satisfied that the state government’s ethics are back on track will they be willing to accept sacrifices in the face of the government’s fiscal meltdown.

But convincing those same legislators who were so hostile to him last year to go along with yet another push for recall and some even broader reforms will require a deft touch. He can’t show weakness, but he must avoid bluster. Another needless showdown could be disastrous, considering the gargantuan task ahead of fixing the almost hopelessly broken state budget and passing an expensive job creation bill, all while avoiding further damage to the state’s tanking economy.

No governor in Illinois history — perhaps even American history — has had to face such widespread disaster and hunger for change on such short notice as Pat Quinn.

For all our sake, let’s hope he’s up to the task.

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