When Gov. Pat Quinn steps onto the Democratic National Convention stage in Charlotte this week, he’ll do so as the governor of Barack Obama’s home state who has championed many of the president’s ideas back home.
But as Quinn considers his own possible re-election plans in 2014, he’s a governor whose biggest budget goal — cutting the retirement benefits of teachers, state employees and other union workers — has angered some of the voters who back Democrats the most.
At the Illinois State Fair just weeks ago, Quinn was booed so loudly by public employee union workers that his speech was inaudible — a rough welcome for a man who’s built his reputation in politics since the 1970s as a populist advocate for consumers and workers.
Jeers aside, Quinn says he’s got the backing to win an election. In a Daily Herald survey, Illinois convention delegates gave him passing grades, with 80 percent saying he should be the party’s 2014 nominee and 20 percent suggesting someone else.
“I think the righteous might of everyday people is the strongest force in Illinois, and I know how to organize that,” Quinn told reporters after a one-day meeting of lawmakers two weeks ago failed to produce a pension solution.
“You have to have a governor who’s willing to stand up to folks who yell at you, and tell them what they need to know, not what they want to hear,” he said.
In the Daily Herald survey of party faithful attending this week’s convention in Charlotte, 40 percent of respondents gave Quinn a “B” grade for his time in office. Another 25 percent assigned him an “A” and more, 28 percent, gave him a “C.”
Fifty-one Democrats responded to the survey, out of 214 total delegates.
On the question about Democrats’ 2014 nominee, several among the 20 percent who want an alternative to Quinn named names, listing Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon.
Twenty-one respondents skipped that survey question, compared to 30 who answered it.
“It depends on who else is running,” Democratic delegate Steve Sheffey of Highland Park commented.
Despite controversy at home, Quinn’s place at the Democratic convention could be as a reliable backer of Obama’s ideas — from health care reform to plans for high-speed rail throughout Illinois to Obama’s call to keep students in high school until age 18.
Quinn can be an appealing liberal figure on social issues, having presided over the elimination of the death penalty in Illinois and the legalization of civil unions.
He has been a notable supporter of veterans — going to Illinois soldier funerals without fanfare even before he was elected governor.
And, since taking over for Rod Blagojevich in early 2009, Quinn has ushered through proposals that eluded his troubled predecessor and have been praised by both Democrats and Republicans, including a plan to build roads, bridges and schools throughout Illinois and his recent successes cutting back on health care spending for the poor — accomplishments that could endear him to moderate voters.
For some of those accomplishments, he gets some credit from House Speaker Michael Madigan, a powerful Democrat and chairman of the party in Illinois.
“He’s a Democrat who doesn’t want to cut governmental services, and he’s been called upon to do that,” Madigan said. “So you’ve got to give the guy credit. He inherited a real bad situation, and he’s done his best.”
Whether his best is enough to avoid a 2014 primary opponent or to beat a Republican challenger remains to be seen. Quinn won election in 2010 over Republican state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington even though it was a big year for the GOP.
But Quinn only won four of 102 Illinois counties — Cook, and three in southern Illinois. He might have to win over more suburban voters to claim victory again. Whether there’s support from unions like teachers’ Illinois Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees could come into play.
No matter Quinn’s own primary situation, the GOP appears prepared to toss a full slate of opponents at the governor, ready to harp on Illinois’ continuing financial woes and Quinn’s signature on the law that raised income taxes from 3 percent to 5 percent.
“Gov. Quinn faces enormous challenges in his own party as he looks to 2014, the foremost being that organized labor is unhappy with him,” said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican and possible 2014 gubernatorial candidate. “And they’re one of the linchpins of the Democratic Party.”
The tax increase will almost certainly be the driving issue of the 2014 campaign — an issue that is sure to split voters and maybe vex candidates.
It is set to expire in 2015, and whoever is elected as the next Illinois governor will have to deal with either the political blowback of extending the tax hike or the possible major budget problems that could come with losing $7 billion in yearly revenue in a state already $9 billion behind in paying its bills.
Quinn has promised a grass-roots push beginning after the convention to tackle the state’s pension debt, but he has yet to say what that will entail.
As he faces the pension pinch, it’s clear Quinn has gone back to his populist, organizing roots to try to solve the problem. And whether that works might determine his future in 2014.
“We have to activate the taxpayers of Illinois,” he said.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.