The busy chief executive of the nation's fifth-largest state probably wouldn't be expected to set aside time to attend an initial hearing in a lawsuit filed against him, but there was Gov. Pat Quinn on the 23rd floor of the Daley Center.
The Democratic governor had made what lawmakers contended was a constitutionally dubious move to take away their paychecks until they send him a pension reform bill. While not much was decided in court that day, the scene allowed a confident Quinn to flick the switch on his populist persona as the glare from a phalanx of TV camera lights shone on him.
"You don't get paid if you don't do your job," the governor declared as though he already had won the lawsuit.
The moment this month marked the unofficial launch of Quinn's re-election effort.
A politician who spent decades as an outsider before becoming an insider when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached now is trying to run as an outsider again.
The governor may suffer from chronic low public opinion ratings and widespread criticism in both political parties that he's an ineffective leader who's failing to move Illinois forward, but come campaign time, Quinn has shown an ability to regain his footing and look gubernatorial.
Quinn's political obituary was half written twice in 2010 before he narrowly won difficult primary and general elections.
"You would think that an incumbent with his low approval level would be toast," said Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "But every election is not about ideals, it's about choices."
As he seeks a second full term, Quinn has used the levers of power at his disposal. He's traveled the state on the taxpayer dime to cut ribbons on construction projects. He took credit for signing popular bills, such as legalizing medical marijuana and raising the highway speed limit to 70 mph.
He hasn't been shy with the veto pen either. Quinn used it to try to toughen legislation that will allow guns to be carried in public — a move that directly appealed to Democratic voters in Cook County and the suburbs, where they tend to be more anti-gun than their Downstate counterparts.
And he eliminated legislative pay from the budget, a move two of the state's legislative leaders have decried as a violation of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. It spurred the ongoing lawsuit, but it resonated with voters frustrated by the state's inability to get back on track financially.
"It really was a stroke of genius," Mooney said. "You don't get hurt by bashing the legislature when you're the chief executive."
But Quinn isn't just focused on the high-profile pops.
He often makes unpublicized visits to predominantly African-American churches on the city's South and West sides, where he prays and shakes hands. It's a way for Quinn to maintain his support in the black community, a key Democratic primary voting bloc and one that Tribune polling has shown dislikes him least.
At the same time, the governor has been quietly building support for his campaign among Democratic organizations across the state. He secured the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party over challenger Bill Daley, the former White House chief of staff whose father and brother served as longtime Chicago mayors.
The endorsement was not without controversy. The group's backing came the same week that Frank Zuccarelli, the Democratic committeeman and supervisor in Thornton Township, resigned from the CTA board he was appointed to by Quinn.
Daley had blasted the appointment as political patronage at its worst. Quinn, a self-professed reformer, repeatedly defended the appointment while noting that critics like Daley "should look in their own family."
In addition to the support of Cook County Democrats, Quinn has been working behind the scenes to secure the backing of Democratic chairmen in another 69 counties.
That early groundwork initially was viewed as a way to undermine a possible challenge from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose father, House Speaker Michael Madigan, is also chair of the state Democratic Party. But after mulling a run for governor, the attorney general instead decided to seek a fourth term in her current office, citing concerns about a governor and speaker belonging to the same family.
The decision allowed Quinn to exhale a bit and continue to focus on building support Downstate, where the Daley name could prove a tough sell with voters wary of the family's decades of influence on statewide politics.
Locking in party support also stands to give Quinn an organizational advantage over state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, if he decides to enter the contest. Raoul says he plans to make a decision "very soon," though many in political circles don't think he'll run for governor. If he ran, his candidacy could help Daley by pulling crucial African-American support from Quinn.
The Quinn campaign is touting his early groundwork.
"He's been working on this for months, with one goal in mind, and that is to be in the best position possible to be elected and build a brighter future for this state," said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson. "The governor has spent his career organizing people in the community, it's not like he just showed up yesterday."
For his part, Daley headed Downstate the last few days to promote his candidacy in a region where Quinn has proven unpopular, winning only three Downstate counties in November 2010.
Even as Quinn scoffs at the notion that some of his actions in office are politically motivated, in recent weeks the governor has started peppering his remarks with references to progressive laws he's signed, such as outlawing the death penalty and legalizing civil unions. The governor notes that not everyone will agree with the decisions he's made in office, including the closure of several prisons and major cuts to the state's health care system for the poor.
In the near term, Quinn has to find a running mate. His 2010 partner, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, is running for comptroller and hasn't endorsed Quinn for re-election. A new law means governor and lieutenant governor hopefuls run as a team in the primary election, so the names of both candidates have to appear on nominating petitions that'll be circulated starting next month.
Quinn's high-profile battle with lawmakers over pension reform could make it more difficult for him to find a running mate if he's going to look at the General Assembly for potential number twos — how could a House member or senator endorse a guy who has taken away their paycheck, and how could Quinn back someone who in his view hasn't done their job on pension reform?
Quinn's spokeswoman dismissed the idea that his fight with lawmakers would limit the pool of running mates, saying the governor has been able to work on a variety of issues with lawmakers he doesn't always see eye-to-eye with.
According to Anderson, the search is in the early stages, with the governor looking for "a like-minded reformer that is committed to the public interest."
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