Sheila Simon lieutenant governor

Photograph: The State of Illinois

First term Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, 52,  announced last month that she won’t partner with Gov. Pat Quinn for a second term. She has another office in mind—but when I talked to her by telephone from Springfield on Monday, she would not name the office. My guess is that Simon, a lawyer, expects Attorney General Lisa Madigan to run in the Democratic primary against Quinn for governor, leaving vacant the AG job. Would Simon take it?

It’s no surprise that Simon would want out of the Lt. Gov. position. She has political ambitions and a gold-plated lineage—daughter of the late, revered U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, who also served as Lt. Governor before trading up to Congress and then the U.S. Senate. Plus, she didn’t earn her current role at the polling place. It happened when a pawnbroker with some ugly stains on his resume upended the political establishment by winning the job Simon now holds.   Scott Lee Cohen was pressured to resign, and Simon got the nod after Quinn’s first two choices turned him down.

She has served in the position without a hint of scandal, and with energy and seriousness. Her decision to jump ship on Quinn—she told him about it last December and announced it last month—can’t be helpful to the already embattled Governor. He's limping toward the next election with a job approval rating of 32.8%And he could win less than a quarter of the vote in a matchup with Lisa Madigan and others. This all comes from a new poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, founded by Simon's father. The news broke on the February day she went public with her plans.

I talked to Simon about her next steps. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation:

CF: Will you vote for Gov. Quinn?

SS: Way too early to say. We don’t even know who’s running for governor.

CF: Does your decision hurt Quinn politically?

SS: To the contrary, it allows Gov. Quinn to line up a candidate who can help him on the ticket.

CF: I’ve heard that some of Quinn’s staffers felt they were blindsided by your announcement.

SS: The Governor knew in December so my decision [made public on February 13] shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

CF: Do you have a person in mind who you think could be a good partner to Quinn and a worthy successor to you?

SS: I don’t have anyone in mind; [the candidate] has to be someone who will be able to serve should something happen to the Governor.  

CF: So is that the problem with this position? The lieutenant governor’s function is to keep breathing so if the Governor stops breathing he/she can take his place?

SS: The purpose in the Constitution is to be ready to succeed the Governor. Several statues give the Lt. Governor specific duties—rural affairs, chairing a council on military bases, river councils, water quality, recreation. Quinn asked me to be his point person on education reform, particularly on community colleges.

CF: Would it be best to just eliminate the position? Have you been using half your brain and suffering from boredom?

SS: There are only four states of 50 that don’t have the office. Given our state’s recent track record, somebody has to be ready. As for being bored, on the contrary. It’s been the opposite, an exciting, great opportunity to serve the state. Now I want to move on to be even more effective. And yes, this is very much a full-time job, full-time-plus; lots of evenings (many groups only meet evenings), lots of weekends. One week a month in Chicago; the rest of the time in southern Illinois and in Springfield when the legislature is in session…. We have an apartment in Uptown which we pay for out of our own funds, and we love to walk to the Vietnamese restaurants on Argyle.

CF: So which job is it that you want? I’ve heard attorney general, treasurer, comptroller….

SS: I’m not the first domino; they have to fall down in a row. 

CF: Have you spoken to Lisa Madigan and asked her if she plans to leave to run for governor?

SS: I do speak to Lisa. We’ve enjoyed working together.

CF: Yes, but specifically, have you asked her if she plans to run against Pat Quinn in the primary for governor?

SS:  That’s a question you’ll have to ask her.

CF: Have you hired a political strategist?

SS: Yes, Terrie Pickerill is one of the folks on the team. We’re lining up other folks. She used to work with David Axelrod.

CF: Would you like to be governor of Illinois?

SS: No one would like to be governor of Illinois right now. Very challenging job. Having said that, I enjoy public service very much, and look forward to continuing in public service. I have no plans to be governor of Illinois. That’s way too far down the road.

CF: Why does Pat Quinn poll so badly? Jim Warren, writing in Chicago magazine, called him “the Rodney Dangerfield of Illinois politics.”

SS: He is just what we needed; totally honest. This is a really challenging time for our state. Anyone who’s involved in government is not going to be particularly popular.

CF: In Illinois there are horror stories about the plight of the lieutenant governor being marginalized to embarrassing invisibility and wanting nothing more than to exit the job—one resigning halfway through his second term and another trying in vain to resign to become a radio talk show host. Are you another example of such marginalization? 

SS: Not at all. Gov. Quinn and I talk regularly by phone. At the start we agreed to meet regularly but we’re never in the same place, so we’re in phone contact. I think I have the access I need.

CF: Your parents met when they were both serving in the Illinois House, but she left after a couple of terms to stay home and raise children and he climbed the political ladder. Of the two who was more of an influence on you?

SS: Both were. I’m a lawyer like my mother. People assume my dad was a lawyer. Dad was a college dropout. They were a great team; we were able to measure that when my mom died [in 2000] and dad was so at sea…. My mother was one of only two women in her class at Northwestern Law School. She told me that there was a statue of Myra Bradwell in the ladies’ room and they used to put lipstick on her. She later worked as an assistant state’s attorney along with Mary Ann McMorrow, who became the first woman on the Illinois Supreme Court and the first woman to serve as the court’s chief justice. 

CF: You were a teen when your father went to Congress in 1975. [He served until 1985.] Did he bring his family with him? 

SS: We moved to Maryland. My dad kept a house in Carbondale and traveled back and forth a lot. 

CF: Did you mix with a lot of famous political people in Washington?

SS: I do remember once going to a barbeque at ABC newsman Hal Bruno’s house. There was a bluegrass band in the back yard. My brother and I went to the kitchen to get a soda and there’s George McGovern. We asked him about Watergate. He explained it in terms that a junior high schooler and high schooler could understand. We went to the White House when the Carter family had a picnic. They had a volleyball net set up and I played a lot of volleyball. One year I got to with my dad to the White House Christmas party. Being in the White House and not being part of a tour was so wonderful and different. I went around the different rooms and sat in the chairs.

CF: When your dad moved up the to the senate (He served 1985-1997) you were, for part of that time, at Georgetown Law School [class of 1987]. Any visits to the White House? 

SS: Let’s say the festivities were not as numerous during the Reagan years. 

CF: Your dad ran for president in 1988. Were you involved? 

SS: My husband and I got married in September, 1987. The campaign was our honeymoon. We had a seedy apartment in West Des Moines and went on to New Hampshire and other primary states.

CF: Your father supported then-state senator Barack Obama in his bid for the U.S. Senate. After your father died in 2003 you made a television commercial for Obama in which you promised, "Barack Obama will be a U.S. Senator in the Paul Simon tradition." It’s often mentioned as having given Obama an election boost. So whatever position you run for, is it payback time?  Can you coax an endorsement from the President?

SS: Sounds like a good idea.

CF: How well do you know President Obama?

SS: I campaigned with him for two days during the [U.S.] Senate primary, went around with him in central and southern Illinois. If he had ten people at a speech it was big news. He did a very good job making fun of his name, [being a] skinny guy from Chicago. In southern Illinois people are suspicious of people from Chicago.

CF: Have you visited with him in the White House?

SS: My husband and I got to meet with him in the Oval Office two years ago. I had met him numerous times before but I was still pretty darned impressed. We went to the White House to talk to David Axelrod, who we knew because he ran dad’s first [U.S.] senate campaign and his presidential campaign.  “Say, would you like to say hello to the President?” he asked us. The president asked how our daughters are doing and told us that one of theirs was going away to sleep away camp for the first time. I told him that ours had gone, and that it’s harder for parents than for the children. He said that’s exactly what he’s worried about.

CF: Tell me about your family.  

SS:  My husband, Perry Knop, is a professor of political science at John A. Logan College [a community college in Carterville] and grew up downstate on a farm, which his father still has. Our older daughter is 23, about to graduate from the U of I and will be going to the Peace Corps after graduate study at the Monterey Institute. Our younger is a freshman at DePaul. My younger brother Martin is a professional photographer and lives in Maryland with his family.

CF: You play banjo in an all-female band called “Loose Gravel”?  What’s the significance of the name?

SS:  One of the band members came up with it. You know, road hazard. We’re about to record our second CD. The joke is it’s available on a need to know basis. You’ll only know it’s available if you know one of us. 

CF: Do people pay you to play?

SS: Often we are paid to play gigs.

CF: What do your daughters think about this?

SS: They think, “How embarrassing.”  My older daughter was debating one of her friends on who has the more embarrassing mother.  My daughter topped out. “At least your mother’s not in an old lady band.”

CF: Before I let you go: any contact with Rahm Emanuel?

SS: I have met with Rahm a couple of times. Most often we talk by phone about education, particularly city colleges, community colleges.  We both have passions in that direction.