CHICAGO – Through his own insistence, the next few weeks will offer a critical test of leadership for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
He has set an early January deadline for solving the state’s pension crisis – a decades-old problem he says he was “put on this earth” to solve. He’s facing lawmakers intent on expanded gambling in the state despite his veto. And all of it is magnified by the emerging 2014 campaign for governor, with Republicans already lining up to take him on and a few of his party colleagues considering it, too.
A self-styled outsider whose first job was cleaning up after the Rod Blagojevich corruption scandal, Quinn’s leadership has been challenged from the start. His populist style, his wavering on some issues, his almost-singular focus on pensions at times and his ability to work with lawmakers all have been questioned.
But Quinn confidently rattles off a list of accomplishments from his first three years in office and expresses a characteristic mix of optimism and idealism about the daunting tasks ahead and his ability to ward off challengers.
“I know how to compete and don’t underestimate me when it comes to election campaigns,” he told The Associated Press in an interview last week. “But it’s not time for that. It’s time for problem-solving in a bipartisan way, to really put some of these issues behind us in Illinois so we can go forward.”
For the past year, Quinn has been intensely focused on overhauling the nation’s worst state pension crisis, with Illinois $95 billion behind in funding its liability. After an emerging solution fell apart last spring over a proposal to shift some pension costs to local school districts, Quinn called lawmakers into a costly special session and even hosted a junior high forum on the topic. Legislative leaders have recently stressed some areas where they have common ground, but no new compromise ideas have emerged publicly.
On a Sunday afternoon last week – the traditionally quiet day he held news conferences when he was a political reformer – Quinn introduced a social media campaign intended to galvanize public support for pension reform, but mostly generated buzz by featuring a cartoon snake, “Squeezy the Pension Python.”
The move left some legislators scratching their heads, including members of a pension committee who say they haven’t been contacted since before the election.
“I’m embarrassed for him,” said Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat who chairs the State Government Administration Committee. “As a leader he should be coming up with ideas and meeting with rank and file and all those stake holders to come to an agreement.”
Legislative leaders argue that the governor needs to be more effective in their meetings.
“The governor’s style has been very grass roots, I don’t think that’s the best style for the position he’s in,” said Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, who opposes Quinn on making schools pay for pension costs. “He never seems to be able to utilize the leverage he has as governor to get what he wants to get done.”
Quinn likens his leadership approach to something of a peacemaker: Gather everyone together. Try for consensus. But as the Chicago Democrat enters the next critical weeks, he seems more at home in those old ways as the populist, rallying the public rather than lawmakers.
Some critics say it’s a sign that even after three years, Quinn hasn’t fully transitioned from gadfly to governor. Supporters insist he’s succeeded at his biggest challenges – keeping the governor’s office relatively scandal free, playing a key role in approving civil unions in Illinois, abolishing the death penalty and traveling globally to promote Illinois exports. But others contend that Quinn has not been aggressive enough nor acted quickly enough.
Quinn made a name for himself as a political watchdog in 1970s and 1980s, leading successful efforts to bar legislators from collecting all their pay in advance and cutting the number of Illinois House members by a third. He helped found the consumer watchdog Citizens Utility Board. He was elected to one term as state treasurer in 1990, and was lieutenant governor for six years before being called upon to replace Blagojevich after he was indicted and impeached.
“He has been a solo operator during most of his adult life. He’s had difficulty making the transition to being a chief executive who needs to bring together people from varying perspectives,” said Mike Lawrence, an adviser to former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and former head of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
Edgar, in an interview, said one problem for Quinn may be the intense focus on one issue.
“He’s spent a lot of time on the pensions. I’m not sure it’s been that effective,” Edgar said. “As governor you’ve got to have about seven balls up in the air at the same time. He’s got also to worry about other issues and make sure that he doesn’t wait until the pension [problem] is resolved.”
Quinn has spoken of working with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who also is pushing for state pension reform. But the two disagree on the gambling expansion issue, and recently squared off in an unusually public way over an appointment of a Quinn aide to a little known agency.
To secure the appointment, the governor replaced an agency board member at the last minute with a longtime ally whose support was more certain. But Quinn downplays the importance of the dispute, and his aides say the two offices work closely and are in constant contact.
“I’ve known Rahm Emanuel since 1980. You win some, you lose some,” Quinn said. “In the matter of that board, to me, that’s ancient history.”
Quentin Young, a longtime Quinn ally who was placed on the board, praised Quinn for his record, calling him “incorruptible.” But he did not sound as confident that the board spat could be so easily forgotten. “I don’t think it’s good for elected officials to fight the way they did,” he said.
The governor says he’s ready for a competitive re-election campaign. Potential Republican challengers include 2010 nominee and state Sen. Bill Brady, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and Republican U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock.
A Democratic primary challenge can’t be ruled out either, given Quinn’s narrow victory in 2010 and his low public approval ratings since then. Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley has suggested the possibility of running and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s name repeatedly has been floated.
But Quinn said his focus is on the pension crisis, and that a solution is both crucial and possible by early January.
“There’s a new attitude, I’ve noticed already, among folks who have been in the legislature,” he said. “They understand that this is our moment of truth.”