SPRINGFIELD — Coming after deposed and dysfunctional Rod Blagojevich, Gov. Pat Quinn is hoping to connect with an exhausted public by casting himself as an earnest reformer eager to start righting the ship of state.
"Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize," Quinn said on each of his first two days in office.
It's one of the favorite bromides for the slogan-slinging former cross-country captain at Fenwick High School known for his energy, modest lifestyle and unceasing devotion to his pet causes.
Political gimmickry and populist rhetoric are also part of the mix for a man who's pushed some high-profile reforms but not always lived up to the lofty image he sells voters. He's an "outsider" who's been bouncing around politics for 37 years and once left state government amid a ghost-payrolling probe. And he's an ethics advocate who defended Blagojevich from corruption accusations until after both were safely re-elected.
Now the longtime populist warrior finally gets to see if his approach measures up to the reality of having to govern Illinois at one of the state's most desperate times.
He takes the reins armed with his idealism facing a steely, high-level political operator in House Speaker Michael Madigan, a fellow Chicago Democrat. The speaker's interests might not nicely dovetail with Quinn's as his daughter, Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, looms as a potential governor challenger a little more than a year from now.
"I think this is his test of whether he's grown and matured to the point of holding the office," Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) said of Quinn.
The office of governor was always on Quinn's political radar, despite a campaign record with successes—one term as state treasurer in 1990 and two as lieutenant governor—outnumbered by four statewide losses.
Republican Judy Baar Topinka, who took over for Quinn as treasurer in 1995, said she knew then he was angling to be governor someday. Topinka said her staff was cleaning out Quinn's old offices and found what she called a "do-it-yourself" governor campaign kit, replete with "Quinn for Governor" bumper stickers.
"It had fallen behind a cabinet," Topinka said. "I wasn't shocked."
But the prospect of Gov. Quinn is shocking to many Illinois politicians who thought of him as a gadfly, a master of holding Sunday news conferences to gain media attention on traditionally slow news days. There he would pitch plans such as electing taxpayer and insurance watchdogs or non-binding referendum questions that looked good on a ballot but had no real effect, such as a ban on naming rights for Soldier Field.
His two biggest achievements, the result of tapping into voter anger, occurred more than a quarter-century ago: cutting the size of the Illinois House by one-third and creating the consumer advocacy Citizens Utility Board.
All of it comes from a guy who said he considers himself at heart a "citizen organizer," even if now he's the one driving the machine instead of raging against it.
"It's not exactly an easy path I had," Quinn told the Tribune. "I had no political patrons or ward committeeman backing me for any job."
Yet critics, including some Democrats he's fought over the years, contend Quinn's calls for reform smack of hypocrisy. And they said his outsider image is belied by a long history in government that includes his involvement in patronage politics.
Nearly a month after Blagojevich's arrest on corruption charges, Quinn formed the Illinois Reform Commission to come up with recommendations on ethics law improvements.
But as Blagojevich's running mate in seeking re-election in October 2006—five months after federal investigators revealed they were investigating "endemic hiring fraud" in the governor's administration—Quinn defended Blagojevich and said the then-governor has "always been a person who's honest and one of integrity."
After the election, Quinn began distancing himself from Blagojevich's scandal. But he has taken donations from some political insiders with ties to the ex-governor.
Campaign records show convicted Blagojevich fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko donated more than $48,000 to Quinn's campaigns. Quinn said he's since donated all of that money and more to charities.
Raghuveer Nayak, an Oak Brook businessman and political fundraiser for Blagojevich, has donated $17,000 to Quinn's campaign fund, according to his reports. Nayak has come under federal scrutiny for his role in a scheme alleged in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich.
Quinn also has forged close ties with some of his own top donors, performing legal work for them and receiving payment from them, even as lieutenant governor.
Chicago restaurant owner Yick Chiu funneled $50,000 to Quinn in 2007 after he had helped Chiu with property tax appeals between 1995 and 2003, the year Quinn became lieutenant governor.
Quinn's federal income tax returns show he declared $20,000 from Chiu and state records show his campaign fund received a $30,000 donation. The $50,000 came several weeks after Chiu closed on the $2.5 million sale of his downtown restaurant. Quinn's spokesman, Bob Reed, said Quinn received only modest payments, if any, from Chiu during the eight years he had done legal work.
The $20,000 was payment "for service over that many years," Reed said. "So when his ship did come in [with the sale of the property], it was far more than I ever expected," Quinn said.
Chiu said he made the campaign donation because Quinn was "a good friend, a nice guy; an honest guy."
Quinn started in state government more than 35 years ago as a loyal employee of then-Gov. Daniel Walker, a Democrat whose fights with party regulars led to battles with lawmakers. Quinn began his association with Walker as a campaign volunteer in 1972, a year after graduating from Georgetown University.
Quinn was among dozens of workers labeled by lawmakers as "ghost payrollers" whom Walker hid on the rolls of other state agencies to avoid looking like the governor's office had expanded.
But Quinn has always rejected the charge of being a ghost payroller because he said he was assigned by Walker to work on the transfer of duties from the state's Industrial Commission to federal job health and safety regulators before he planned to leave state government. Further, Quinn said he was never in a no-show job, the traditional definition of a public employee who did no work.
Attorney and political hiring expert Mary Lee Leahy worked with Quinn in the administration and said he handled patronage job requests—a job description Quinn says is oversimplified.
"He would refer people. It was legal," said Leahy, who went on to serve as lead attorney in a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 banned political considerations in most state hiring and firing decisions.
In 1975, amid the legislative probe, Quinn gave up his state job, went to law school and launched the group Coalition for Political Honesty to push citizen initiatives.
Quinn lost an attempt to parlay a 1982 county tax board win into the state's treasurer's office. Days after losing, he joined Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's administration as revenue director.
Caught in a fight between Washington aides who variously contended he was either too reform-oriented to deal with administration friends or too interested in seeking the media spotlight, Quinn was ousted after eight months.
Quinn rebounded to become state treasurer but his career stalled until he won the 2002 lieutenant governor primary and was joined with Blagojevich, who didn't necessarily want him as a running mate.
Seven years and one impeachment later, Quinn, the former cross-country runner, is governor.
It's a type of running that requires stamina and hard work to go the distance. For Quinn, dealing with the state's massive problems is a race he's guaranteed just two years to finish.
Tribune reporters Todd Lighty, Ray Gibson and Robert Becker contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun