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updated: 11/6/2010 6:08 PM

Decades of agitating take Pat Quinn from gadfly to governor

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  • Pat Quinn talks about his political career, during an interview at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago.

       Pat Quinn talks about his political career, during an interview at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Pat Quinn chats with him mom Eileen recently in Chicago.

       Pat Quinn chats with him mom Eileen recently in Chicago.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Pat Quinn and his mother, Eileen, talk about his childhood and career during an interview at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. For more on the force that Quinn's mom has been in his life, see Page X.

       Pat Quinn and his mother, Eileen, talk about his childhood and career during an interview at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. For more on the force that Quinn's mom has been in his life, see Page X.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Pat Quinn and his mom Eileen.

       Pat Quinn and his mom Eileen.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Pat Quinn and his mother, Eileen.

       Pat Quinn and his mother, Eileen.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Pat Quinn's mom, Eileen, says she always knew her eldest son would go into public service.

       Pat Quinn's mom, Eileen, says she always knew her eldest son would go into public service.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Pat Quinn and his mother, Eileen.

       Pat Quinn and his mother, Eileen.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has tea in the living room of the Executive Mansion in Springfield, Ill., Thursday, March, 26, 2009. His almost 30-year-old briefcase "Betsy" sits on the floor. After six years as lieutenant governor, Quinn is leaning on his well-honed image of honest public servant as he leads Illinois government in the wake of the corruption scandal that engulfed his predecessor and fellow Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

      Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has tea in the living room of the Executive Mansion in Springfield, Ill., Thursday, March, 26, 2009. His almost 30-year-old briefcase "Betsy" sits on the floor. After six years as lieutenant governor, Quinn is leaning on his well-honed image of honest public servant as he leads Illinois government in the wake of the corruption scandal that engulfed his predecessor and fellow Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • Gov. Pat Quinn talks to the media outside the governor's office in Springfield on Jan. 30, 2009.

      Gov. Pat Quinn talks to the media outside the governor's office in Springfield on Jan. 30, 2009.
    AP Photo/Seth Perlman

  • An excited Quinn reacts as early election returns show him doing well in his bid to oust state Treasurer James H. Donnewald in March 1986.

      An excited Quinn reacts as early election returns show him doing well in his bid to oust state Treasurer James H. Donnewald in March 1986.

  • Quinn during his activist years.

      Quinn during his activist years.

  • Quinn February 1996.

      Quinn February 1996.

  • DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTOPat Quinn.

      DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTOPat Quinn.

  • Quinn in April 1985.

      Quinn in April 1985.

  • Pat Quinn in July 1989

      Pat Quinn in July 1989

  • Quinn is sworn in as the governor of Illinois in 2009.

      Quinn is sworn in as the governor of Illinois in 2009.

 
 

It began with an overgrown suburban field.

Gov. Pat Quinn was 10 years old then, his now 93-year-old mother Eileen recalls. The area across the street from the family's Hinsdale home today Robbins Park was filled with overgrown brush.

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"Pat was the leader of the boys in the neighborhood," she said. "He organized them together, and they cleared the whole area and made a ballfield."

It was right around that time that the Quinns, some of the few Irish Catholic Democrats in heavily Republican DuPage County, saw one of their own, John F. Kennedy, make a bid for the presidency.

Quinn's father, Patrick, a Navy veteran and Catholic Cemeteries manager, took his three boys Pat (III), Tom and John to a Kennedy rally at a Democratic office in nearby Westmont, purchasing the 5-cent buttons the family still has to this day. Something stuck with young Pat Quinn that day. Years later, the suburban boy made a name for himself as a community organizer and agitator of the powerful political machine.

Last week, precisely 50 years from the time Kennedy won Illinois by 8,000 votes, Quinn appointed after the January 2009 impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich narrowly defeated Republican state Sen. Bill Brady by half a percentage point margin to be elected governor of Illinois.

It hasn't been a smooth ride for the rumpled and intensely guarded gadfly turned governor.

There have been successes over the past 21 months pension and campaign finance reforms, a major capital bill, and the retention of key businesses, like Navistar in Lisle.

But there also have been embarrassments the secret early release of prisoners last December; dealings with an uncooperative General Assembly that refused to pass a balanced budget; and an eyebrow-raising no-layoff deal with AFSCME around the time the union announced it would be endorsing him.

Experts say this is finally the time when Quinn could effectively move ahead on his oft-repeated vows to help rid Illinois of corruption and get the bankrupt state back on his feet.

Quinn has a choice to use the lessons he's learned from the close election and use them to sharpen his tactics, or "take this election as some vindication that the way he's been doing things is OK," said University of Illinois Springfield Political Science Professor Kent Redfield.

Quinn "is incredibly honest but he also tends to be a very true believer kind of person. And that the ends justify the means. This is a second chance."

The gadfly

After working briefly for Democratic Gov. Dan Walker, Quinn in 1975 formed the Coalition for Political Honesty out of his messy Oak Park apartment.

"The family, we all jumped on board whether we wanted to or not," said youngest brother John, a longtime history teacher and basketball coach at Fenwick High School in Oak Park. "I was 14 years old, and he had me out there handing out pamphlets."

Quinn, who shuns the term "gadfly," calls himself the "number one autograph seeker" in the state, putting forward countless referendums, pushing for term limits and the Cutback Amendment, which reduced the number of House lawmakers by a third.

Following lawmakers' 1978 vote to raise their own salaries by $8,000, Quinn organized a protest, encouraging residents to send tea bags to Gov. Jim Thompson, reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party. He helped form the Citizens Utility Board, which to this day fights against electric and phone rate increases.

Quinn was a Democrat who sneered at politics as usual. And in turn, members of the legislature greeted him with boos as he looked on from the House's gallery one afternoon. Speaker Michael Madigan deemed him a "disgrace" to his Irish heritage.

Learning from his student days at Georgetown University in the 1960s, Quinn "is really a 60s era activist. That mentality was very confrontational," John Quinn said. "I think as time went on, he matured, he got into 1980s and 90s, started looking at path of electoral office he'd like to occupy."

From the Coalition, Quinn launched a political career that started with election to the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals in 1982 after a major scandal landed numerous staffers in prison. After working in Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's revenue department, Quinn was elected to state treasurer 1990

He lost a 1994 bid for secretary of state to George Ryan, and several more runs for office before narrowly winning the lieutenant governor's race and joining Rod Blagojevich's ticket in 2002. As a lieutenant governor, he was supportive of Blagojevich through his re-election in 2006, though it was clear Blagojevich rarely if ever sought out Quinn for help or to work together on state projects. Shortly after, however, a rift developed between the two. By the time of Blagojevich's December 2008 impeachment, the pair hadn't spoken in months.

Accidental governor

Quinn was sworn in to the state's top office on Jan. 29, 2009, his mother and sons Patrick IV and David at his side.

At the time, former Gov. Jim Edgar said Quinn would be an improvement over Blagojevich.

Looking back at Quinn's tenure Thursday, Edgar agreed with his earlier assessment.

"I think people think the governor's honest," he said. "That is a huge accomplishment compared to what we went through. People like him, he's very sincere. It was a very important attribute for the governor to have."

Edgar, who led the state from 1991 to 1999, was the last governor, Quinn aside, who has not been charged with a felony for wrongdoing while serving the state of Illinois. Edgar's tenure was followed by Republican George Ryan, now in prison for corruption.

Still, the past 21 months have been trying, at best for Quinn.

Saddled with a $13 billion deficit, Illinois' bond rating has continued to plummet, meaning it is saddled with higher interest payments when it borrows money. The state is millions of dollars behind in payments to schools and social service agencies.

This summer, the legislature balked at Quinn's plan for an income tax increase, and, after failing to agree on what to cut, shuttled this year's budget to his desk. With just 21 months in office, it was near impossible to handpick a new staff, Redfield points out, as no one was assured of being employed more than half a term.

"There's no doubt he came in a terrible, awkward situation. Besides the financial mess, he came in from an impeached governor, then he had an election coming up," Edgar said.

Quinn, reflecting on his time in office, says he's "done some hard things I'm proud of," the capital bill, campaign finance and ethics reform, among them.

He says he has "no apologies" about the AFSCME deal, saying that "it will save the taxpayers money." He also doesn't see it as a contradiction of his younger self.

"I've always been a supporter of unions," Quinn said.

He also noted that he's had difficult dealings with the General Assembly, which was "reluctant to do anything" in the midst of an election cycle.

"I thought there would be a moment of time where we could do hard things for the state," he said. "It's been clear that all the politicians wanted to be politicians. I intensely courted Republicans and Democrats and Madigan. They were hesitant to do anything real hard."

David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, says Quinn's entire tenure has been marked by a focus _ by lawmakers and Quinn himself _ on the next election. Quinn wasn't afraid to pitch ideas the General Assembly didn't agree with, but when they rejected him, most of the time, he "just grumbled about it."

While Quinn considers his relationship with Madigan healed to some extent, he calls the powerful House Speaker and Democratic Party chair "still recalcitrant on a lot of things I think he should be for. The biggest one was school funding. We had a moment there last year where I thought we could invest more state money in the schools, and roll back property taxes, I couldn't get him to go for it. But I think that will happen. you just have to be persistent."

Quinn, throughout his campaign, has said he has the "fortitude" to deal with the state's budget crisis.

He has called for a 1 percentage point income tax increase in order to invest in education _ but when asked where he will cut, Quinn has no specifics, yet. Instead, he points to legislation sponsored by Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Democrat from Park Ridge, called "budgeting for outcomes" that would require an analysis of spending in every area of the state's budget.

In his own right

Now elected in his own right, Quinn's success is dependent on several factors, Redfield says.

"He's got to be able to put together a team to not only make policy but also to run state government. He has to present a vision and a focus. Frankly those are the things that if he would have done more of that over the last 21 months, he would have been not in as much trouble as he was going into this election."

Quinn says he plans to tell lawmakers that "we have a mandate to do hard things," to work to strengthen the middle class economy, schools and health care.

He plans to work for ethics reform and citizen initiatives, working so voters can enact laws by petition and referendum, bypassing the legislature.

Edgar says Quinn needs to use the conviction and energy he first found as a young community activist.

"He's the governor. He takes a position, he needs to stick with it. I've found you've got to almost be stubborn. You have to use the bully pulpit. He knows the bully pulpit."

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