Tuesday, January 8, dawned unseasonably mild in Springfield, with the temperature hitting nearly 50 by early afternoon. But the warmth of that winter day didn’t seem to penetrate the grand Renaissance façade of the Illinois statehouse. With just hours to go before the end of the legislature’s lame-duck session, Governor Pat Quinn made one last desperate attempt to get lawmakers to pass a pension overhaul bill. His proposal—that an outside commission dictate the reforms—met with an icy reception.
The state’s failure to do anything about the $96 billion in unfunded government worker pension liabilities—a figure so mammoth that it has made Illinois a national embarrassment—crystallizes everything you need to know about Quinn’s governorship (and, of course, Illinois politics). Four years after he replaced the disgraced Rod Blagojevich, and 11 months after he proclaimed that he was “put on earth” to solve the pension crisis, Quinn has struggled as a closer. Even when he does make things happen, he rarely gets credit for them. According to a poll of voters in 38 states released last November by Public Policy Polling, only 25 percent of people in Illinois approve of the work he’s doing, making him the least popular governor of all.
This state of affairs is surprising in a way. Because on paper Pat Quinn is exactly the kind of guy you’d expect Illinoisans would want after years of corrupt leaders: goodhearted, passionate about the little guy, honest as the day is long. “He had a unique opportunity to change government in Illinois,” says Jack Franks, an outspoken Democratic state representative from McHenry County. “People were so tired of business as usual. We were hoping for somebody different to change the culture of Springfield. It didn’t happen. He was timid and didn’t make sweeping changes. Instead of making the situation better, he made it worse.”
Even Quinn’s allies concede that his legislative agenda has lacked coherence (“all over the map,” says one) and that much of the initial goodwill has dissipated. He faces an even tougher road this year; for the first time, he’ll have to contend with a veto-proof General Assembly.
With the gubernatorial primary a year off—and the political grapevine buzzing about Democratic heavy hitters Lisa Madigan (No. 20 on Chicago’s Power 100 list) and Bill Daley (No. 72) and the superrich Republican Bruce Rauner (No. 39)—Quinn is up against potentially fatal challenges.
Few political soldiers in Springfield are willing to follow Quinn into battle these days, and he has alienated some of his closest union allies. His reluctance to fundraise isn’t exactly a plus, either. “He’s in one of the most perilous positions of any Illinois pol ever,” says Mike Flannery, the political editor at Fox 32 News, who has known Quinn since he was an incoming freshman at Georgetown University in 1969 and Quinn was his student tour guide. “But he’s been there before and defied death.”
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During what you’d think would be a winter of terminal discontent, Quinn sits in the shadowy corner of an empty Loop restaurant overlooking the gray Chicago River the day after Christmas. His circumstances and the bleak setting call to mind the movie Mob don Michael Corleone brooding at a Lake Tahoe compound as life unraveled and he had his disloyal and bumbling brother Fredo offed. On so many levels, he seems alone.
But for Quinn, there seems to be no self-doubt or self-pity inspired by the dismal approval ratings, the state’s horrific finances, or the political establishment’s widely held opinion that a well-intentioned soul is playing out of position. Quinn doesn’t really care, he insists, about what the “insiders and lobbyists” think of him. “I will never be an insider,” he says. “I want to be the champion of people who don’t have insiders and lobbyists supporting them.”
Then he adds, more unconvincingly: “I don’t aspire to have high approval ratings. I aspire, in light of my two predecessors, to be the most honest governor I can be. I’d rather focus on honesty than popularity.”
Over two and a half hours, Quinn discourses freely on politics, the departure of White Sox catcher A. J. Pierzynski, his father’s World War II service in the South Pacific, the 1963 championship Loyola University basketball team, Iraq War veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and his 20-something sons (a fledgling artist in New York and a fund manager in Sydney). The breadth of his intellectual curiosity, while formidable, accentuates what can be a lack of focus.
As he talks, he fingers a small, sweaty wad of cards and paper scraps held together with a dried-out rubber band. It’s his longtime de facto Rolodex and day planner. The scraps are a maddeningly ad hoc, nonlinear way of operating—and a handy metaphor for his governing style.
Quinn has never been a conventional politician. For one thing, unlike many in the political realm, he has never had a heady income to bank before exiting public life. Divorced since 1986, he lives in a modest 1,600-square-foot house in Galewood, on Chicago’s West Side. (For years, he has been dating Monica Walker, the CEO of Holland Capital Management.) He uses his late father’s 60-year-old push lawn mower, often drives his 2008 Chevy Impala rather than a state-provided black sedan, and dines regularly with his 95-year-old mother, a former school administrative assistant who lives by herself in a River Forest condo. His seats at U.S. Cellular Field (he has season tickets to his beloved White Sox) are in the nosebleed upper deck.
He was raised just as modestly, in a devoutly Catholic home in an unassuming section of the western suburb of Hinsdale. He ran cross-country at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, went on to Georgetown, and earned a law degree at Northwestern.
Quinn got his start in politics in the early 1970s, working for the maverick Democratic governor Dan Walker. Then, in 1976, he started the Coalition for Political Honesty, a small good-government group (and the first paying client of Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod). Along the way, he built a name for himself as a consumer activist and political scold. Mindful that Sundays were typically slow in the news business, he became a master of holding self-aggrandizing press conferences then. (As governor, Quinn would go on to introduce Squeezy the Pension Python, the widely mocked Disneyesque character, on a Sunday.)
Quinn firmly believed that the state legislature was too big and too wasteful. In 1980, he spearheaded a constitutional change known as the Cutback Amendment: It shrank the size of the General Assembly by a third, from 177 to 118, by doing away with multimember districts. That amendment, which took effect in 1982, is now viewed by many as a mistake because it led to less diversity of legislators and opinions and consolidated power into a few hands. And it made Quinn the bête noire of the Springfield political establishment.
The same year, Quinn successfully ran for his first public office, a commissioner of the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals. A progressive multitasker, he also cofounded the consumer watchdog group Citizens Utility Board. After a failed first bid, he became state treasurer in 1991, but then he lost three straight statewide elections: for secretary of state, for senator, and for lieutenant governor.
In 2002, Quinn ran for lieutenant governor yet again and got it. “You can call him the Accidental Governor, but the fact is, [running for lieutenant governor] was the shrewdest move of his life,” says one longtime political insider. “It positioned him. He obviously didn’t know what might happen [with Blagojevich], but he was mindful of the high percentage of lieutenant governors who have succeeded their predecessors. And he knew it would provide a platform.”
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When Blagojevich was ousted in January 2009, Quinn took over a state that was broke and in many ways dysfunctional. Years of scandal, political gridlock, and inertia had corroded the public’s confidence in politicians. The new governor was characteristically quick to exploit a crisis.
Quinn promptly appointed a blue-ribbon commission to offer recommendations for ethics changes in state government. He promised to give Patrick Collins, the former federal prosecutor who had helped convict ex-governor George Ryan, the authority to select the commission’s members, operate independently, and, ultimately, produce recommendations without his vetting.
The governor made good on all those pledges. But legislators would not accept the committee’s (arguably politically naive) proposals. When that became clear to Quinn, he threw his support to a much-watered-down bill. Then, with no apparent sense of irony, he beckoned the chagrined commission members to his office to praise their tenacity, say members. He likened their odyssey to his own uphill effort on the Cutback Amendment. But his underlying point seemed to be: I just can’t be a purist outsider anymore.
While Illinois’s difficulties are by no means of Quinn’s making—as he will frequently tell you—some of his problems as governor are. Quinn is by nature antihierarchical and antibureaucratic, which complicates life running a massive organization. Despite participating in intellectually robust internal free-for-alls on policy, he exhibits a penchant for micromanaging, an unpredictability, and an inattention to detail that drives Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, Senator John Cullerton, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and others batty.
Several Quinn staffers complain of not enough people being empowered to make decisions, of policy goals and tactics changing from week to week, and of confusion sometimes as to where the decision-making locus really lies. They say he can be the intellectual captive of the last person with whom he spoke and of the last idea jotted down in that crumpled wad of paper.
Quinn can also be ham-handed, as in finding state jobs for lame-duck legislators after they’d voted his way. And he was too slow in removing dubious Blagojevich holdovers and in filling key vacancies—including the head of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. As of presstime, that post had gone vacant for 21 months, in part due to his own political fumbling in pushing for a Chicago alderman, Joe Moore, to fill the post.
Consider, too, Quinn’s handling of the 2011 legislation on ComEd and Ameren’s so-called smart grid. A bill up for vote would allow the firms to control power flows and determine the location of outages rather than waiting for customer phone calls. The legislature passed the bill, but Quinn vetoed it, saying it would hurt consumers and suggesting along the way that members were in the hip pocket of the industry. This was quintessential populist Quinn. But the legislature overrode his veto. That was quintessential administratively maladroit Quinn. He should have either cut an earlier deal on the bill or counted votes better when he vetoed.
Finally, there’s last year’s veto of the Emanuel-supported bill that would have dramatically expanded casino gambling. Quinn claims there was insufficient regulatory oversight. He also believes, probably correctly, that the proponents’ revenue claims are grossly inflated. The casino brouhaha seems classic grist for a compromise that simply wasn’t fashioned. Asked about dealing with Quinn and Emanuel on casinos, one Springfield power broker says, “Rahm brings votes; Pat doesn’t. Rahm figures out a legislator’s agenda and needs; Pat doesn’t.”
Unlike an Emanuel, Cullerton, or Madigan, Quinn is not instinctually transactional. He’s a sober thinker who “doesn’t want to do something that looks good in the short term but not long term, like the Chicago parking meter deal,” explains Quinn’s youngest brother, John, a teacher and basketball coach at Fenwick. He says the governor prefers “to be much more like a statesman above the fray.”
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It’s ironic that the master of self-promotion has largely failed to receive credit where credit is due. Quinn’s tenure has brought a politically courageous hike in the income tax; the closure or merging of 54 state facilities; the passage of a $31 billion capital construction plan, the first in a decade; a $2 billion reduction in the state’s $14 billion annual Medicaid liability; a doubling of the earned income tax credit for the working poor; improvements to a malfunctioning juvenile justice system; the abolition of the death penalty; and the recognition of civil unions.
He forcefully told Catholic Charities that the state was eliminating its foster care and adoption contract after the church refused to abide by the new civil unions law. He stuck it to Cardinal Francis George and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by presenting an abortion rights group’s award to a rape victim who is also a victims’ advocate.
Quinn also stepped up with more than $600 million for the $1 billion overhaul of the CTA Red Line—money, it should be noted, that was totally Quinn’s call, outside the legislature’s control. He closed prisons, rescinded union contracts, and held the line on pay freezes. The tough but necessary calls for budget cuts were a particular outrage to AFSCME, the major public employee union and a critical supporter in Quinn’s impressive win over Bill Brady in the 2010 governor’s race that even data-crunching pundit Nate Silver got wrong.
“He simply doesn’t get the credit deserved for smart, progressive moves in some areas, like getting juveniles out of adult correctional facilities, trying to deinstitutionalize care for the mentally ill, and having the state now well positioned to implement Obamacare,” says one Democratic state senator.
That is partly a function of the inherent unpopularity of Quinn’s decisions, including raising taxes and closing facilities. It’s partly his occasionally lengthy Hamlet-like agonizing, such as over abolishing the death penalty or vetoing the gambling expansion bill. (Quinn can be seen as “a waffler and indecisive,” his brother John concedes.) And it’s partly the creeping sense that he’s in over his head as a chief executive, lacking the bloodless certitude and tactical prowess of, say, a Rahm Emanuel.
To be fair, Emanuel has no real legislative obstacles in his way. The City Council is a rubber stamp. Quinn, meanwhile, has been hamstrung by state lawmakers enraptured with the status quo, particularly its Democratic old guard, Madigan and Cullerton, who still view him as a circa-1970s attention-seeking thorn in their side. He doesn’t have a floor leader or chief supporter-cum-enforcer in either the House or the Senate. Nor has Quinn been able to galvanize support in the party ranks. “It doesn’t seem as if anybody is blocking for him,” says Tom Cross, the House Republican leader.
Consider that January showdown in the statehouse. With days remaining in the special legislative session, Quinn was pushing hard to get a pension overhaul bill passed. But he complicated the task by not effectively twisting arms for needed votes, by pressing for legislation on unrelated issues (gun control, gay marriage, driving privileges for illegal immigrants), and, most of all, by failing to secure Madigan’s trust. His eleventh-hour Hail Mary, the proposal for an outside commission to dictate the reforms, was dead before arrival.
“Here’s the hard, simple truth about pension reform—or anything, for that matter,” says Rich Miller, whose Capitol Fax blog covers the legislature. “Nothing difficult ever gets done unless House Speaker Michael J. Madigan pushes his members to vote for it. Period. End of story.”
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At our post-Christmas Lunch, as he finishes off a turkey burger and sips a cup of chocolate-flavored tea, Quinn appears to be undaunted by the tough road ahead. He even claims to welcome a Lisa Madigan challenge come election time. “That’s what contests are all about,” he says.
Quinn further suggests that Madigan’s entry into the arena could bring surprises of a negative sort for a politician he has alternately praised and chided. He also claims that Mike Madigan, her father, told him: “If she runs, I have to leave.” (A Madigan spokesman responds: “I never heard that discussion or anything along those lines. I would doubt that it ever happened.”)
Reelection and pension problems aside, Quinn does have some things to feel good about. By many accounts, 2012 was his most productive year in office so far. He has shown an obvious maturation. He has come across as more of a decider, more assertive in the Balkanized universe that is Illinois politics.
Still, Quinn is a long way from being a Lyndon Johnson, a Jim Thompson, or even a Rahm Emanuel—each effective pragmatists and wheeler-dealers of the highest order. To get there would require a shift in personality and temperament on the order of TV’s Extreme Makeover. It would mean feeling totally at ease in a room full of legislative leaders (and not balancing his checkbook during meetings, as one leader swears Quinn once did). It would mean being less cautious, setting aside his self-image as a statesman, and somehow doing deals with Madigan, the viceroy of Springfield, who may simply not want to cut Quinn any slack, given his daughter’s potential run.
Jerry Brown, the quirky governor of California—Quinn-like in some ways—could be a model. When it came to raising taxes, for example, Brown made the case only after forcing through big budget cuts. The result: a balanced budget with projected surpluses in 2014—a remarkable turnaround from the $26 billion deficit he inherited in 2010.
The lunch check arrives. I throw in a credit card, but Quinn pushes it back and starts sorting through his wad of rubber-banded papers. Voilà, he finds it! It’s his membership card in a frequent-diner program. One lunch at a time, the dogged political outlier is finding ways to save money. If only he had coupons for the $96 billion pensions tab.
Photograph: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images