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updated: 2/8/2011 2:51 PM

Being state's No. 2 is first priority for Sheila Simon

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  • Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Sheila Simon.

      Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Sheila Simon.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

Illinois Sen. Paul Simon was known for his horn-rimmed glasses and bow tie, sure.

But he also was known for his integrity and honesty, for his work toward ethics reform.

Seven years after her father's death, Simon's only daughter, Sheila, is bringing that pedigree to the Democratic governor's ticket.

The dark horse with little political experience outside of a stint on the Carbondale City Council was named Gov. Pat Quinn's running mate by Democratic Party leadership in March, after primary winner Scott Lee Cohen dropped out of the race after controversial revelations about his personal life.

Quinn was able to capitalize on a rare opportunity when the Democratic State Central Committee was tasked with picking a replacement for Cohen.

"That's what's bizarre about Illinois politics," said Northern Illinois University Professor Matt Streb. As second-in-command, the lieutenant governor should be someone who works closely with the governor.

"But look at Quinn and (former Gov. Rod) Blagojevich. They couldn't stand each other," he said.

Quinn, Streb said, "got an opportunity" when Cohen stepped down.

"They chose someone who would help him with various demographics. He was not doing well with women. With votes from downstate. Sheila Simon from a strategic standpoint makes sense," he said.

Simon, 49, says she carries with her on the campaign trail lessons from her father.

But despite the famous name, she says she's campaigning on her own terms - connecting with suburban voters as a teacher, a mother and a lawyer.

At an informal meet-and-greet with teachers at Jewel Middle School in North Aurora, Simon, arms gesticulating, answers questions about pensions system changes and a proposed income and property tax swap to benefit schools.

Simon, a former prosecutor who teaches family law and legal writing at Southern Illinois University, is known for her casual dress - often wearing Hawaiian button down shirts and khakis in place of suits - and casual demeanor.

This is Sheila, an easy flash of the gaptoothed smile, inherited from her dad, seems to say. She's often introduced as the former senator's daughter but rarely brings up that fact herself.

Dubbed Quinn's "point person" on education, she says she wants to put her teaching skills to work and have a road show about the state budget.

"Maybe with buckets of tennis balls. This is how much we have to spend," she said to nods from the two dozen educators in the room.

A number of teachers at the event say they're unhappy with pension reforms put into place last year, forcing teachers hired after Jan. 1, 2011, to work longer for more tightly capped pensions.

"Well, this is one of those decisions where to be in a position of dealing with a budget, you're going to make decisions that are not loved by everyone," she tells them matter-of-factly. She calls the reform "something that reflects the marketplace."

With Chicago already leaning heavily Democratic, Simon is able to help in the traditionally Republican downstate vote and the swing-vote filled suburbs, Harper College Professor Emerita Sharon Alter said.

"She's an advantage in the suburbs. Potentially with women's groups. She is an experienced campaigner. And she enjoys it. That's genuine and that comes across," Alter said.

"Add to that the reputation of the Simon name. Among Republicans and independents who remember Paul Simon, that's important. I think Quinn enjoys campaigning too. The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts when they're together."

Simon says she "knows from personal experience" the concerns some women have over governor candidate Bill Brady's conservative voting record - opposing abortion including in the cases of rape, incest or the life of the mother; voting to limit mammogram insurance coverage and hospital stays for new mothers.

But it's schools, Simon says, that are helping her to connect with voters.

With Illinois, still $774 million behind in 2009-10 academic year payments to schools as of late August, funding problems have heightened the awareness of the state's budget crisis, she said.

Along with the traditional campaign stops at train stations, county fairs and union meetings, Simon said "whenever I have time, I try to throw together a meeting of teachers. Because that's a natural group that gets the importance of education."

With both parents deeply connected to Illinois politics - mother Jeanne Hurley Simon served as a state representative from 1957 to 1961 - Simon learned to be a campaign ambassador of her own at a young age, traveling around the state and the country as her father ran for lieutenant governor in 1968 and as a U.S representative and later senator.

She even spent her honeymoon campaigning for her father's 1988 presidential bid in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"I've always enjoyed it. Figured one way or the other I'd be involved," she said. "It wasn't absolutely imperative I was the one running for office, though."

When her daughters Reilly and Brennan, now 20 and 16, were little, she said, "it was very easy to turn down requests."

Simon was elected to Carbondale City Council in 2003. In 2007, she lost a bid for Carbondale mayor.

In 2009, Quinn appointed Simon to the 15-member Illinois Reform Commission, examining state ethics following the impeachment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

When Cohen dropped out of the race amid pressure from Democratic leadership, she found her chance.

Simon says she and Quinn have a shared vision: making sure government "runs well" and cleaning up corruption.

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