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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Pat Quinn & Harold Washington: What’s the Real Story?

Bruce Rauner is pounding his opponent with an infamous old quote from the late mayor. The truth underneath it is a thicket of politicking.

For Bruce Rauner the primary campaign was a cakewalk. He must have wondered why he waited so long to run. But lately the cakewalk for Rauner is more like a narrow path loaded with IEDs. So it’s not surprising that Rauner has released his version of the Harold Washington ad. Dan Hynes, then state comptroller, tried an ad with essentially the same script when he narrowly lost to Quinn in the 2010 Democratic primary.

The new Rauner ads, running on both TV and radio, are narrated by an African-American woman and aimed at peeling off Quinn support from African Americans and independents.

Here’s the highlights of the TV ad:

And the radio ad:

They feature footage of a WGN-TV interview with Mayor Washington shot just a couple of weeks before the November day—the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, 1987—when Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, collapsed at his City Hall desk and died.

Washington says the following:

“I would never appoint Pat Quinn to do anything.”

“Pat Quinn is a totally and completely undisciplined individual who thinks this government is nothing but a large easel on which to do his PR work.”

“My only regret is that we hired him and kept him too long.”

“[Hiring Quinn] was perhaps my greatest mistake in government.”

Washington hired Quinn, whose first job in government was an assistant to Gov. Dan Walker, as director of the city’s revenue department in November 1986. The mayor was approaching a reelection campaign. He said he was determined to sweep clean the dirty revenue department. The feds were then investigating City Hall for corruption, and, wrote, the Tribune’s R. Bruce Dold, the department appeared to be Washington’s “Achilles’ heel.”

The following June, Washington publicly humiliated Quinn by firing him from the $67,000-a-year job. Washington charged Quinn with both disobeying orders (to implement a reorganization plan) and with unbridled media self-promotion. 

What was really happening between Quinn and Washington in the months from Quinn’s June ouster and the mayor’s November death? Well, for starters, Quinn wouldn’t shut up about it.

The day after he fired Quinn, the Mayor tried to tamp down Quinn’s righteous indignation: “All reformers don’t agree. Everybody can’t get along. I was married for 10 years to my childhood sweetheart, and I would walk through that wall for her, but I couldn’t live with her.” Washington said his “highest priority” was getting the Department of Revenue restructured, and not Quinn’s highly publicized amnesty program for holders of unpaid parking tickets—Quinn hatched a program that allowed people with outstanding tickets to settle them for half price. “The revenue department requires someone with an iron butt,” the mayor said, “not a pretty face.” (Quinn, then 38, did have more hair and a thinner figure.)   

But the nice words didn’t stop the mostly Quinn-generated negative stories. Reporting for the Sun-Times in June 1987, Basil Talbott wrote that Quinn’s ouster “raises the question: Is there room for a noisy reformer in Mayor Washington’s ‘reform administration?’” Talbott credited Quinn with doing well in his previous job, “straightening out the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals, mired in scandal for years.” (Quinn served as a commissioner from 1982-1986. He resigned after making an unsuccessful run for state  treasurer in the 1986 Democratic primary.)

Within a few days of Quinn’s removal, the Tribune’s Kathy O’Malley and Hanke Gratteau wrote that Mayor Washington’s “honchos are trying to “dirty up former city Revenue Director Pat Quinn by sullying his abilities as an administrator. But Quinn might have some mud to sling back.”

The Tribune’s Manuel Galvan and James Strong reported that Quinn was claiming that a mayoral legislative aide had asked him “to delay a departmental tax audit hearing as a favor to Ald. Fred Roti…. Quinn said he was told that the administration was trying to keep Roti’s vote on a matter in the city council and that Roti had asked the city to delay a hearing on an audit of a business with ties to the alderman.” Quinn said he refused and asked Washington’s COS Ernest Barefield to back him, but Barefield walked away telling him and the aide to work it out between themselves.

According to James Strong, Barefield was among two Washington aides who “orchestrated” Quinn’s ouster, and Strong added that Barefield had “opposed Quinn’s appointment in the first place.”

In many of the scores of stories from that period, Quinn comes off looking pretty good. The Tribune’s John Camper wrote about Quinn’s efforts to save money by taking away city cars from revenue department employees. “Quinn couldn’t understand why three of his deputies needed full-time use of city cars when they never left the office on business. So, he suggested they give up the cars to save taxpayers some money.  He might as well have asked them to give up their wives and children. `They were offended,’ said Quinn.” Camper noted that Pat Quinn did not use a city car, and Quinn noted elsewhere that he rode the CTA to work.

Still jobless, Quinn had plenty of time to blast the mayor and his aides for their attempts to “politicize” the revenue department. That August, James Strong described Quinn’s appearance on WBEZ during which he attributed his ouster to what Strong wrote was Quinn’s “refusal to bow to political interference.” Tired of being lambasted by Quinn, Mayor Washington countered that if his former revenue director wanted to lob those charges, he should go to “proper authorities,” not to the press.

Quinn remained relentless. Bruce Dold wrote that Quinn had formed “something of a government-in-exile… to monitor City Hall since he was ousted.” He called a press conference that year to push for the creation of a city-wide ombudsman which O’Malley and Gratteau described as “a sort of White Knight office accountable only to `the people’ to investigate all that might be shady in city government. A noble thought, but the problem is that Quinn, who’s looking for a job, hasn’t ruled himself out for the taxpayer-funded position that he’s trying to get created.”

On July 5, 1987, 10 days after Quinn was fired, the Chicago Tribune, in an editorial, described Quinn as “the scrupulously honest and frequently insufferable [former] city revenue director.”

Coming to Quinn’s defense, sort of, was Alderman Ed Burke who was quoted that year as saying, “How many times do I have to repeat that if you believe the Washington administration is in favor of reform, you believe there ain’t a steer in Texas?”

Quinn omits his short tenure as Revenue Director from his Who’s Who biography.  He pops right from commissioner on the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals to state treasurer (1991-95).

After the Rauner ads were released, Quinn, in Springfield to announce a state grant for a homeless shelter in the city’s downtown, denounced the Rauner ads as “name-calling” and claimed that Washington had tried to mend fences with him: “Quinn, You’re my friend. You’ll always be my friend. Some day we’ll have a drink about this.”

Sadly, the late Mayor Washington is not available to comment.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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