CHICAGO – Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn distinguished himself early in his political career as a fighter for term limits, but this election year it’s Illinois Republicans who are championing efforts to cap lawmakers’ time in office.
The proposals – including a legislative one this week – have put Quinn in a tricky spot ahead of November when he’ll ask voters for a second full term after rising to the office from lieutenant governor. Over the years he’s painted himself as an outsider and is known for embracing such populist ideas, but Republican businessman Bruce Rauner has seized the issue and criticized Quinn’s commitment. At the same time, term limit proposals don’t have backing from top Democrats and Quinn has stumbled when committing to a term limit for himself.
“It makes the governor uncomfortable, puts him back on his heels a little bit,” said Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “It’s hard to be the outsider when you’ve been governor for six years.”
Quinn was put on the defensive this week when Republican leaders of the House and Senate introduced a last-minute measure calling for term limits for statewide officers. Rauner used the chance to dig into Quinn’s campaign themes of advocating for working people, calling for Quinn to take the “people’s side on the issue.”
The governor came back with a statement saying he’d supported term limits since 1994 when he led efforts to get it on the ballot. He also cited his past work for other constitutional amendments to reduce the size of the House in 1980.
“Constitutional amendments have long allowed the power of the people to translate into positive reform for Illinois government,” Quinn said in the statement. “I hope voters have the chance to consider this constitutional amendment on the ballot.”
However, even as voters generally support term limits, the chances for the proposal look slim. For one, it needs a three-fifths vote in both the Democrat-led House and Senate before a Illinois State Board of Elections deadline to submit amendments to the constitution.
Also, top Democrats have questioned the timing of the plan, which would limit the state’s constitutional officers including the governor, comptroller and treasurer, to two terms of four years each. The House would have to convene an extra day to meet constitutional obligations needed to pass Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno’s bill.
Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown said the timing was “suspicious” and the late filing indicated there wasn’t support. Senate President John Cullerton’s spokeswoman said the proposal would get a look, but the timing made things difficult.
“There really is a very tight, if not impossible, window for us to work with here,” said Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon.
But Radogno’s spokeswoman Patty Schuh dismissed the notion.
“If we’ve learned anything in Springfield, if there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said. “The voters are looking for an opportunity to limit these elected officials and we’re trying to provide that.”
Voters may have another chance to consider term limits for lawmakers under a plan pushed by Rauner, who is seeking public office for the first time. The Illinois gubernatorial race is expected to be one of the toughest and most expensive nationwide.
Rauner’s ballot initiative has gathered about 550,000 signatures – close to double what’s needed – to get the issue on the ballot and organizers will present them to the Illinois State Board of Elections next week, said Mark Campbell, spokesman for the Term Limits and Legislative Reform Committee.
The proposal calls for eight-year limits on members of the Senate and House. It would also cut the size of the Senate, expand the House and make it tougher for the Legislature to override a governor’s veto. For example, the proposal would affect the term of Madigan, who has been in the House since 1971.
Quinn said he didn’t support the measure because it expands the House, but he supports term limits in general. He declined, however, to commit to two terms for himself when asked in recent months.
A Chicago Sun-Times columnist reported Quinn wouldn’t seek a third term if he won a second in November. Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson confirmed the report Friday evening.
Rauner’s campaign said Friday that Quinn’s statement this week supporting term limits for statewide officials was taking a cue from the Winnetka businessman.
“It’s good to see Pat Quinn following Bruce’s lead and offering his support of this,” said Rauner campaign spokesman Mike Schrimpf. “But I think he still has some steps he needs to take to seem like it’s not political posturing.”
Quinn’s campaign spokesman Izabela Miltko disagreed.
“The best way to tell a real populist from a phony one is to look at the track record,” she said. “Bruce Rauner had nothing to do with a citizen initiative until it suited his own personal political interests.”