February 4, 2010
Quinn Survives — For Now
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
"People are in a bad mood," says David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Although disenchantment is common throughout the country today, Illinois is a special case. "In Illinois," says Yepsen, "they know they have one of the worst-managed states in the nation. They have one of the worst budget deficits in the country. And they know Illinois has a history of corruption. They're angry, exasperated and afraid."
A fall poll by the Simon Institute showed residents thought the state delivered services worse than the federal government or local municipalities. Half of Illinoisans thought the country was on the wrong track, but three quarters said their state was headed in the wrong direction.
That anger hasn't coalesced around any one campaign as yet. While Quinn's lead over Hynes was slim, it dwarfed the margin claimed by the Republican frontrunner. State Sen. Bill Brady is clinging to a lead of 400 votes or fewer against fellow state Sen. Kirk Dillard.
Indeed, the most telling message Tuesday may have come from the vast majority of voters who stayed home. Only about a quarter of the state's eligible voters made it to the polls amid a mild snowfall. The weather contributed to the low turnout, but even voters who braved the snow to vote complained about the barrage of negative TV advertisements and automated campaign phone calls that had filled up their answering machines in recent weeks. They frequently questioned whether their elected officials were getting anything done. "The public is extremely frustrated, and that's reflected in the low turnout," says Robert Rich, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
Illinois' primary date was changed from mid-March to early February during the last presidential campaign season. Supporters of the change wanted to help Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential bid, although Illinois never emerged as a serious battleground state on Super Tuesday. This year, the early date meant candidates for governor had little time to persuade voters before the balloting.
Despite the sour public mood, Quinn started off in a commanding position on the Democratic side. Lawmakers greeted him warmly, with joyful shouts and a standing ovation in the Illinois House chamber, when he took the oath of office last January to replace the ousted and disgraced Rod Blagojevich. By the fall, Quinn led Hynes by a 2-1 margin in polls.
But the governor stumbled on several major issues. He failed to win passage of an income tax increase in a General Assembly dominated by his own party. The budget he signed put Illinois in an even more precarious financial position than it had been under Blagojevich. And Quinn's administration botched a prisoner release program designed to save the state money. Hynes seized on those missteps. He called for more responsible budget practices. Like Quinn, he backed a tax increase, but differed significantly from his rival on the particulars.
The campaign took a starkly negative turn in its last month. Hynes ran TV ads featuring the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington criticizing Quinn. The governor, in turn, attacked Hynes for lax oversight of a cemetery where bodies were dug up and grave sites resold.
Last week, though, Quinn mustered the powers of incumbency to end on a positive note. He announced new jobs for autoworkers, touted big public works projects and appeared alongside the state's most prominent Democrats, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
The Blagojevich legacy
Any Illinois gubernatorial candidate, and especially Quinn, must work in the shadow of one of the state's most reviled politicians, Rod Blagojevich.
Even for a state that has had more than its share of corrupt politicians in recent years (including George Ryan, Blagojevich's imprisoned Republican predecessor), Blagojevich's pre-dawn arrest by federal agents in December 2008 marked a shocking new low.
The FBI released details of wiretaps on the governor's phones purporting to show Blagojevich shaking down a children's hospital for campaign contributions, using state powers to try to get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired and bargaining to sell President Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat. The Blagojevich legacy already has played a large role in the race to succeed him. Millionaire Republican candidate Andy McKenna launched one of the first TV ads of the primary season using Blagojevich's trademark physical feature — his bushy head of hair — as a symbol for all that had gone wrong in Illinois government. The impact of the "Blago factor" may grow, because the ex-governor goes on trial this summer, just months before the November election.
All the candidates in both parties pitched their campaigns against Blagojevich, including Quinn, who was elected twice as his running mate and served as his lieutenant governor for six years, but was never close to him and rarely even spoke to him. Hynes nevertheless sought to portray Quinn as part of the corrupt Blagojevich regime, proclaiming that "we are fighting for a government that's every bit as good as the people who live here."
Still, it's not clear that a nominee of either party can escape the aura of disillusionment that has framed Illinois politics for the better part of a decade. "The political leadership has no credibility left," says Yepsen. "They're sick of politicians here. They're embarrassed by them. They're angry with them." The absence of a political leader voters can trust will make it harder to convince the public to support painful measures, especially tax increases and spending reductions, that will be needed to balance Illinois' budget, which has a $12 billion hole.
Republicans' high hopes
Illinois Republicans have some reason to hope that public outrage will be focused mostly on their opponents. Since Blagojevich won election in 2002, Democrats have controlled every branch of Illinois government. The morning after the GOP primary, Republicans couldn't agree on who had won their party's nomination for governor. But they all seemed to agree with the message of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. "What Democrats have done for the last eight years in Illinois is what unifies Republicans this year," Barbour said at a breakfast gathering in downtown Chicago Wednesday, to loud applause.
Barbour tried to link this year's elections for governor and for Obama's former Senate seat in Illinois to high-profile GOP victories over the last six months. Republicans won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey in November and took a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts in January. Signs hung at the GOP breakfast showing outlines of the three states with the phrase, "Illinois is next."
"The political environment for the Republican Party in the United States is better for Republicans in February 2010 than it was in February 1994, the year we won the biggest mid-term majority sweep in the 20th Century," Barbour told Stateline.org . "That doesn't mean it'll still be that good in November. But it is good today and Illinois is no exception."
To escape from the box that circumstance and some of his own actions have placed him in, Quinn will focus his general election campaign around jobs, especially ones created by a state construction law he signed. He plans to align himself with Obama and to ratchet up the populist rhetoric that launched his political career more than three decades ago.
Before he became governor, Quinn was known in Illinois as an agitator and gadfly. His first post in government was working for Gov. Dan Walker, an anti-machine Democrat who served a single term in the 1970s. Quinn fought successfully for creation of a citizen board to monitor utilities and famously led an effort in the early 1980s that cut the size of the Illinois House of Representatives by a third.
In his election night speech to supporters, Quinn closed his remarks with what has become his trademark line. "Together, all of us together," Quinn said, "we have to make the will of the people the law of the land."