State of the State: 'Least Popular' Governor Tag Doesn't Tell Whole Quinn Story

Jan 1, 2013

Jamey Dunn
Credit mattpenning.com 2014 / WUIS/Illinois Issues
In late November, Gov. Pat Quinn was dubbed with the infamous title of the least popular governor in America.

Only 25 percent of respondents to a Public Policy Polling survey of Illinois voters approved of Quinn’s performance in office, and 64 percent said they disapproved. The rest of those polled said they were not sure. That represents a drop from a September Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll that found that 42 percent of voters approved of Quinn’s performance. That number was an improvement over an October poll from the institute, based at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, that found Quinn’s approval rating was only 35 percent. 

“Gov. Quinn is doing what’s right for Illinois and to make our state a better place. After decades of fiscal mismanagement and two corrupt governors in a row, Illinois now has no-nonsense ethics laws, a shrinking unemployment rate and less discretionary spending than ever before because of Gov. Quinn,” Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s leading the state in its most difficult moment. What’s required right now is a lot of hard decisions and bold leadership. And it’s not easy and immediately popular, but we’re doing what’s right.” Almost everything about that statement is correct, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Quinn — the lieutenant governor who championed environmental and populist causes and often had to hold press conferences on slow news days and Sundays just to get coverage — inherited a colossal mess. Former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich had just been impeached and removed from office for, among a litany of offenses, conspiring to sell President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat. Illinois was literally a joke, as it was getting ribbed on nearly every late-night comedy show. Now Blagojevich and his predecessor, former Republican Gov. George Ryan, are both serving time in federal prisons for corruption convictions. 

When Quinn stepped into office, the state’s budget deficit was a jaw-dropping $13 billion. But at the time, nobody knew how bad it was because Blagojevich’s administration had refused to give Quinn’s people information to ease the transition. 

While many citizens may not see improvements that have been made in Illinois, one has to consider how bad things truly were before the state began to confront its ethics and budget problems. 

A veteran Statehouse reporter noted in a recent conversation how far Illinois has come in improving its budgeting process by basing spending on realistic revenue estimates and making the required public employee pension payments up front before other spending is determined. To most, those seem like the basics of budgeting: Find out how much money you are bringing in before you spend it. Make your required mortgage payment before you decide to spend on other more-flexible costs. But in the context of recent Illinois political history, these changes are a revelation that Quinn perhaps did not spearhead but did vocally support. 

Quinn’s administration also played a pivotal role in historic Medicaid reform that is expected to reduce the state’s liability by nearly $2 billion. 

Before the campaign finance reform law, which came as a response to Blagojevich’s stunning corruption, was enacted, Illinois was called the Wild West of campaign reform so many times that I cringe to even reiterate the cliché. But there is a reason for all the repetition. While the state had reporting requirements, there was no limit on how much a politician could take from any one person or group. Quinn struggled with this first big challenge, at one point testifying for a bill that his own reform coalition opposed. He also vetoed the bill that originally passed, as part of an agreement with legislative leaders to rework the plan. But in the end, Illinois got some substantive reform. Was it everything that good government advocates wanted? No. Did it completely revamp the state’s culture that bred corruption? Clearly not. A House member indicted on bribery charges is going to be sworn in later this month. But when weighed against what the state had before the new law, it was a monumental change. 

Many say Quinn won the 2010 election primarily on social issues because moderate voters were scared off by the stances of his Republican challenger, state Sen. Bill Brady, on issues such as abortion and gay rights. But at times, Quinn has struggled with owning his liberal bona fides. He was a vocal advocate of civil unions, even standing up to Catholic leaders in his own church over it and his pro-choice stance. However, his Department of Revenue’s waffling about whether couples in civil unions could file joint tax returns, a right that had been promised them by legislators when the bill was passed, likely did not win him points with the gay community. In the end, the department found a way to allow couples in civil unions to file jointly, but damage was done. 

Quinn is pushing to close the super maximum-security prison near Tamms. Advocates say that the extreme isolation that prisoners experience in Tamms is a human rights violation that exacerbates and sometimes even causes mental health issues. He has framed the closure of the costly facility simply as a budget issue instead of focusing on the moral questions. While that move seems to be an effort to simplify the debate over the closure, few budget hawks in the General Assembly are rushing to publicly support Quinn because their colleagues with facilities slated for closures in their districts are not pleased with his plans. Quinn’s administration says that the prisoners from Tamms will be held under the same conditions at another prison. So while advocates support the closure, Quinn is giving them little to commend him for. 

When Quinn does take to the bully pulpit, he often has no luck. After a mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater in July, he used his veto pen to rewrite a noncontroversial bill dealing with ammunition sales into an assault weapons ban. The veto was overridden, and the sponsors and other lawmakers rebuked Quinn for not going through the regular legislative process. Quinn has used his veto pen in the past to hijack bills and change them to ethics initiatives. Those moves get him nowhere with the public or with legislators, who may resent his efforts to get his initiatives passed without appealing to the standard legislative process. 

No one could claim that Quinn has not pushed for pension reform. Early in the debate, he stayed somewhat on the sidelines, saying only that he would support a “constitutional” plan. But in the last year, he has gone all in on pension reform, presenting his own framework for changes to employee benefits. He has even claimed, “I know that I was put on Earth to get this [pension reform] done,” but when he called a special legislative session on pensions, nothing happened. And his online efforts to educate the public on growing pension costs, starring Squeezy the Pension Python, have been roundly mocked. 

His struggle to get pension reform passed strikes at the heart of Quinn’s problem: Whether it is fair, it seems most voters just don’t see him as effective. 

A former governor who had to make some unpopular cuts in his day says that demonstrating his ability to lead is the key to Quinn bringing up his approval rating. “Public opinion can change. My experience has been: At the state level, once your numbers are down, it’s hard to get them back up,” says former Gov. Jim Edgar. “But it doesn’t mean they can’t come back. [Former Republican Gov. Richard] Ogilvie, his numbers got down after the income tax. They came back up. Not quite enough. He just barely lost to [former Democratic Gov.] Dan Walker. ... I think Ogilvie demonstrated as governor he was willing to do a lot of tough things and get things done. He managed well, and I think that’s what governor Quinn would have to do. He would have to demonstrate that he is managing the state, [that] he is getting some problems solved.”

Of course, Edgar, a Republican, likely hopes that Quinn cannot increase his public approval numbers. But Edgar concedes even if he can’t, it does not mean that Republicans can defeat Quinn in the 2014 race for the governor’s office. “I think [Quinn’s low approval rating is] why in two years, we have a chance of coming back and making this state a two-party state if we win the governor’s race. I think we have an opportunity to do that. It’s an opportunity. It’s not a guarantee. We’ve got to make sure we nominate the best candidate and that that’s a candidate who can not only win a primary, but he’s got to win the general election. And to win the general election in Illinois, you’ve got to appeal to independents and Democrats.”

The survey from Public Policy Polling shows Quinn trailing potential Republican challengers state Sen. Kirk Dillard and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford. Quinn did beat Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock in the poll, but only by one percentage point. The poll also shows voters favored potential primary challengers Bill Daley and Attorney General Lisa Madigan over Quinn. 

It is a rough time to be an executive in America. The buck stops with you, and there are not enough bucks to go around. Charismatic President Barack Obama has seen his approval rating dip. According to Gallup polling, the lowest plunge was down to 38 percent. It has since recovered to 51 percent. 

So it is no surprise that Quinn is not currently winning any popularity contests. And he has nothing but unpopular choices in front of him for the rest of his current term — pension reform, budget cuts and possibly more reductions to Medicaid. But if he can lead the way on those issues and work effectively with the legislature, where there will soon be a Democratic supermajority, he might be able to rehabilitate his image.

Illinois Issues, January 2013