Gov. Quinn has faced management learning curve

Associated Press
Updated 10/16/2010 10:30 PM
  • Pat Quinn

    Pat Quinn Associated Press

Gov. Pat Quinn delivered his first State of the State address with a year of governing under his belt. It was a chance to prove he had a plan for Illinois and to lay out an agenda that would help him win a full term in office.

But for 72 rambling minutes last January, Quinn quoted scripture, reeled off traffic statistics and even boasted that he had earned the nickname "Soy Boy."

It was a squandered opportunity, a high-profile example of the rookie governor's erratic leadership style that set the tone for a year of flip-flops and missteps that critics cite as proof Quinn isn't up to the job.

Quinn and his supporters respond that he is a governor trying to get a lot done under the toughest of circumstances. The former lieutenant governor, Quinn was thrust into the job in January 2009 when lawmakers impeached and removed his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich. Since then, the Democrat has had to wrestle with a stubborn $13 billion budget deficit complicated by a nationwide recession.

Quinn's accidental governorship itself was an opportunity to prove himself in a role of real power, after years as a populist reformer behind citizen initiatives or in less influential state roles. He argues his first priority was not solving the worst budget crisis in state history, but in restoring a sense of honesty and trust in a state tarnished by corruption scandals.

He says he's succeeded. Now he's asking Illinois voters to grant him his own four-year term on Nov. 2.

"Here's my philosophy: No. 1, work hard. I work hard," Quinn said in an Associated Press interview. "I said the day I got sworn in I was going to tell the truth all the time, and I have."

Republicans say Quinn simply isn't good at governing.

"I don't think we've ever had less competency in the governor's office," said Quinn's chief opponent, Republican state Sen. Bill Brady.

Allies are quick to come to Quinn's defense.

"He came in at a very difficult time, and what appears to be bouncing around from idea to idea is the governor trying to do his best to piece it together," said Democratic Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, who worked with Quinn to pass a $31 billion public works program.

All but ignored when he was lieutenant governor, Quinn was elevated after Blagojevich's impeachment and arrest on federal corruption charges. Quinn and Blagojevich had been on the outs, but Quinn still has not escaped being tainted by the man he served alongside and critics blame them jointly for the state's financial problems.

Quinn initially was enveloped in a bubble of good will, but the honeymoon ended as he pushed the unpopular idea of a tax increase while making management decisions that left many people scratching their heads.

He angered legislators by keeping some of Blagojevich's aides or giving them new state jobs. He demanded the resignations of everyone on the University of Illinois board of trustees, then backed down when two trustees refused to go after a scandal over secret clout in the admissions process. He didn't follow through on threats to slash state services if legislators rejected his budget proposals.

Quinn also gave raises to aides while cutting costs elsewhere. He hung on to the director of the Corrections Department after a botched early release program included violent offenders.

His handling of a bill to overhaul campaign finance laws showed his early inexperience in such a powerful office, said Cynthia Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Over objections from his own ethics commission, Quinn supported reform legislation with serious weaknesses. He testified in favor of it, but a storm of criticism persuaded legislators to start over, and Quinn agreed to veto the bill he'd praised.

"It really showed in some ways how as lieutenant governor he had just not been on the field at all when it came to dealing with the legislative leaders," Canary said.

"I give Quinn credit for having the chutzpah to veto his own bill," she said.

Quinn points out that he wound up approving several ethics bills, including Illinois' first limits on campaign contributions.

His former chief of staff, Jerry Stermer, said what some derisively call flip-flopping is Quinn making compromises that produce results.

"For him, adjustments are in order to get better outcomes," Stermer said.

The state budget has been the major challenge for most of Quinn's nearly 21 months in office. He has pressed legislators to raise income taxes, but they refused. He has pressed them to decide where to cut spending, but they stuck him with that job.

Quinn notes he has worked with Democrats to pass major changes in government pensions and reduce costs in the decades ahead. As part of the compromise on ethics legislation, he got a constitutional amendment on the fall ballot that would give voters power to recall unpopular governors.

He pushed through the first major public works program in years, providing billions of dollars for roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs. Blagojevich never managed to accomplish that because legislators didn't trust him to spend the money fairly.

Quinn was no stranger to Illinois politics when he replaced Blagojevich. He had been lieutenant governor for six years and was elected to one term as state treasurer in 1990. He lost a 1994 race for secretary of state.

It was in the 1970s and 1980s that Quinn made a name for himself as a political watchdog (or gadfly, to his critics). He led successful efforts to bar legislators from collecting all their pay in advance and to cut the number of Illinois House members by one-third. He also helped create the consumer watchdog Citizens Utility Board.

Now, in the spotlight of Illinois' top job, Quinn has said little about his goals if the state's budget crisis ever ends.

Ralph Martire, head of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said Quinn's lack of consistency can be confusing to voters on something as complex as a tax increase.

First, Quinn proposed raising the income tax rate from 3 percent to 4.5 percent. Then he was willing to support a Senate bill with a bigger tax increase. Later, he scaled back his proposal to a 1-point boost solely for education.

"If you're going to be talking about something that you know most voters are going to be resistant to hearing in the first place," Martire said, "I think you have to be very consistent and very strong and very on-message all the time."