In a state so plagued by cronyism and shady self-dealing that the head of the FBI here didn't hesitate to call Illinois one of the if not the most corrupt states in the nation, Lieut. Governor Pat Quinn is considered something of a Goody Two-Shoes. Responsible for slashing the size of the state legislature, he has been booed by legislators on the capitol floor. He keeps a minimal staff and is said to charge $75 a ticket for fundraisers at a time when entry to most is well into the hundreds if not thousands of dollars. The former tax attorney and divorced father of two started a citizens' oversight board for the state's utilities. His populist sympathies even led him to support a bill last year that would have allowed citizens to use recall campaigns to boot politicians from office.
As the state continues to grapple with the shocking allegations against Quinn's boss, Governor Rod Blagojevich, that kind of law could have come in handy. But even without it, Quinn could soon be taking the reins of power in the state, including possibly making the U.S. Senate appointment that got his boss in so much trouble in the first place. (Read TIME's top 10 scandals of 2008.)
Almost from the moment that federal prosecutors charged Blagojevich with scheming to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder, a diverse coalition of local, state and national politicians has called on him to step down. The state legislature on Monday took the first steps to start impeachment proceedings, and state attorney general Lisa Madigan has appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court to invoke an obscure law to declare Blagojevich unfit (at least temporarily) for office. Over the weekend, there were media reports that Blagojevich could resign as early as Monday. But late Sunday, his spokesperson denied any such thing, and others insisted that the governor, who claims he has done nothing wrong, will fight the charges with a new lawyer who doesn't shy away from taking the toughest cases to trial (and who happened to represent a co-defendant of Blagojevich's scandal-stained predecessor, George Ryan, who himself is currently sitting in a federal penitentiary).
Quinn has been more than a tad outspoken since U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's office filed the 76-page complaint last Tuesday. At various times, he has said that "Illinois is in crisis" and that "when you have all five constitutional officers, when you have members of Congress, when you have the U.S. Senator from Illinois, Richard Durbin, when you have the President-elect urging you to step aside, I think that's about as high as you can go."
On Sunday, Quinn and Madigan made the rounds of national talk shows, saying the evidence and allegations against Blagojevich that he engaged in pay-to-play politics for years, tried to purge the Chicago Tribune editorial board and, perhaps worst of all, tried to auction off a Senate seat made it all but impossible for him to govern. "I hope the governor does resign," Quinn said on NBC's Meet the Press. "I think that's best for the people of Illinois, as well as for himself and his family."
By most accounts, Quinn hasn't even spoken to Blagojevich with whom he was twice elected, in 2002 and 2006 in more than a year. At one point, as Quinn was pressing the governor over taxes and electricity rates, Blagojevich said Quinn was no longer a part of his administration. "Quinn is known as a gadfly," Blagojevich told a radio station last year. "That's one of his charming qualities."
For his part, Quinn said on Meet the Press, "I tried to talk to the governor, but the last time I spoke to him was in August of 2007. I think one of the problems is, the governor did sort of seal himself off from all the statewide officials, [from] attorney general Madigan and myself [to] many others, and that's no way to govern. You have to be able to reach out and touch people and listen."
Quinn is far from the only Illinois pol who carefully kept his distance from the governor as it became clear that the feds were investigating his administration. But for Quinn, who turns 60 on Tuesday, it may not have been simply a political calculation.
Cut from the mold of a 1970s post-Watergate maverick politician, Quinn has long been viewed as a serious-minded, if eccentric, reformer. In his 30s, after graduating from Georgetown and Northwestern, he tried to amend the state constitution to allow residents to enact laws through referendums. He once urged people to inundate former governor James Thompson's office with 40,000 tea bags to beat back postelection pay hikes. These days, he draws attention to the cause of veterans by hosting a website called Operation Homefront. (Meanwhile, he slips into the funerals of soldiers almost unnoticed.)
"He's unpretentious, thoughtful, no show," says Kevin Conlon, a political consultant here who was state chair of Howard Dean's presidential bid four years ago. "He's this Irish Catholic, zealous guy who never lost that passion from his young years as a lawyer and politician. It's a calling."
Still, as much as he battles the establishment, Quinn is not exactly an outsider. In addition to serving as lieut. governor, he has been state treasurer, he has served as a commissioner of the Cook County Board of (Property) Tax Appeals and he did a brief stint as revenue director under the late Chicago mayor Harold Washington. In office, he has pushed environmental causes, veterans' affairs issues, consumer and taxpayer rights, and health-care matters. But the whiff of scandal has hit him too. While a state treasurer from 1991-95, he accepted nearly $20,000 from a company tied to Tony Rezko, a now convicted Blagojevich fundraiser and controversial area developer who also backed Obama early in his political career. When questioned about the money as well as previous dealings with the disgraced Rezko during the last election cycle, Quinn said he would contribute the Rezko funds to charity.
And, not surprisingly, in a state where bare-knuckle politics is the norm, Quinn's crusading nature hasn't always endeared him to his peers. He has been called everything from a demagogue to a fool. As far back as 1980, in a profile of Quinn for Illinois Issues, a political publication run by the University of Illinois, the writer questioned whether Quinn, then heading an organization advocating for increased grass-roots political power, was a "gadfly or hypocrite." The piece was titled "Pat Quinn A Man Politicians Love to Hate," and it quoted him as saying, "I'm like a rolling stone gathering the moss of legislative opposition, but it doesn't bother me that much. I do it because someone has to try to make things better."
Even if Quinn does end up replacing Blagojevich, the process of making things better may not include his appointing Obama's replacement. In the wake of the scandal, there are growing calls to let the people of Illinois decide whom to send to Washington, no matter who is in the governor's mansion. State Republican Party leaders are launching a TV campaign to make the case that a special election should be called to fill the vacancy, and Blagojevich, clearly in a bargaining mood, has indicated that he might be willing to sign such a bill. "Blagojevich Democrats like Pat Quinn did nothing to stand up to Governor Blagojevich and his ethical lapses," Joe Birkett, the DuPage County state's attorney, told the Chicago Tribune.
Quinn's behavior since the Blagojevich case was revealed has been called into question. Critics have suggested that he has been making a naked power play by initially supporting a special election for Obama's Senate seat, only to then support a speedy impeachment process so he could make the appointment himself. The lieut. governor tried to square those two positions over the weekend.
"I saw a bill on Friday night that would provide for a temporary appointment to the U.S. Senate until we could have a special election. I am concerned that we always have two Senators from Illinois representing us in Washington, and I think it's very important that whoever is governor get an opportunity to appoint at least a temporary person until an election could take place," he said on Meet the Press.
Quinn would not have a long stint in office before having to think about running for a full term in 2010. Perhaps ironically, among those jostling for the executive suite is Madigan, who is considered by some to be a front runner for the job and whose father, Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan, decided Monday that impeachment proceedings will go forward.
It would be fitting for a man who has made a career of campaigning against career politicians to make a short stay of it in the highest office in the state. But Quinn will still have to work hard to live up to his own code of conduct. As Blagojevich and his predecessors have shown, it doesn't take too long to be corrupted by the same power that has swallowed four of the past eight governors.