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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 03:57 pm

When will Quinn learn not to slam legislature?

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Gov. Pat Quinn.
PHOTO BY MICHAEL TERCHA/MCT

“I love this governor!” exclaimed a jubilant utility lobbyist a few weeks ago.

Why would a utility lobbyist express his undying love for our self-proclaimed consumer activist governor?

Simple.

The lobbyist was absolutely convinced that Gov. Pat Quinn’s over-the-top media antics had helped pass the so-called “Smart Grid trailer bill” by a huge margin and provided the extra oomph needed to override Quinn’s own veto of the original Smart Grid bill.

That lobbyist was not alone. Several legislators, staff members and other longtime observers said basically the same thing. When the governor decided not to negotiate the bill’s details and switched to slamming legislators who received utility campaign contributions as somehow criminal or at the very least sleazy, he created a nasty legislative backlash so intense that the utilities were able to hold their coalition together.

Yet, Quinn appeared to revel in his alleged victories. He got his clock cleaned, but he fought the good fight, and that’s apparently what really mattered. 

“I read somewhere that I enraged the General Assembly,” the governor said afterward about the ComEd bill imbroglio, including his unfounded and untrue allegations of “monkey business” during the House rollcall. “Well, so what?”

But then, several days after the first week of veto session ended, Gov. Quinn abruptly changed his tune.

Gone was Quinn’s public anger, replaced with a far more professional attitude. He stopped slamming the General Assembly and stopped holding media events.

As a consequence, the governor did much better during the second week of veto session. He came very close to a deal on solving some serious budget problems, got a bill passed to his liking which addressed his summertime veto of regional school superintendents’ salaries, and a gaming bill he opposed petered out in the House.

If he’s learning, that would be a good thing.

No governor has ever had great relations with the General Assembly. Then-Senate Minority Leader Pate Philip would go days, even weeks, without returning calls from his fellow Republican, Jim Thompson. Gov. Thompson got so fed up at one point that he stomped over to Philip’s office, banged on the door and pushed past Philip’s chief of staff when told he couldn’t come in.

The difference between then and now is nobody held a press conference. We only found out about it 20 years later when Thompson told me the story during Rod Blagojevich’s public meltdowns after House Speaker Michael Madigan refused to meet with him.

Gov. Jim Edgar left office with public approval ratings in the 70s, but he was not beloved by state legislators. After every Edgar budget speech, reporters would rush to Pate Philip and wait for him to declare his fellow Republican’s proposals were dead on arrival (the wait rarely lasted longer than a few seconds). Yet, Edgar never aired his grievances with Philip (or just about anybody else) during a press conference.

As a former House Speaker, George Ryan had an amazingly effective relationship with the legislature. Even so, he had problems that were at times severe enough to make him want to tear his hair out by the roots. But Ryan never fumed about his ample frustrations in public.

Fighting with the General Assembly is part and parcel of being governor. And veto sessions are, by their very design, overtly hostile to the governor. The governor is set up to lose.

Rod Blagojevich never really understood that. He thought that everyone, including Madigan, should bow down to him, and we all know where that led. It was starting to look as if Pat Quinn had the very same, hugely counterproductive, personality trait as Blagojevich.

Quinn was in a headlong dive toward a failed administration, but then he pulled back, perhaps just in time to prevent the gaming expansion bill’s sponsors from rounding up more votes from furious legislators. Quinn’s antics were actually a major tactical component of the gaming bill’s backers. Without Quinn’s explosive, accusatory public temper tantrums, it was tougher to convince members to go against the governor’s wishes. The bill failed miserably and Quinn’s hand was strengthened.

Quinn needs to stay calm, work hard behind the scenes, take names and, if absolutely necessary, plot a more subtle revenge. Whining to the media has never once accomplished anything under the Dome.  

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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