CHICAGO — In one of his toughest campaigns in more than three decades in the public eye, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn touts his long career as a "reformer" and insists he stands for clean government after taking over at a difficult time in state history.
Portraying himself as a regular guy who relates to regular people, he's proudly frugal, opting for fast-food over fancy restaurants, upper deck White Sox tickets and maintaining his modest West Side Chicago home. A recent ad shows him cutting his lawn with a push mower as he describes cutting state spending, even suspending his own paycheck to pressure lawmakers to deal with Illinois' huge pension shortfall.
"The lawnmower I use, that belonged to my father. It's 63 years old," the Democrat told The Associated Press in an interview. "People know I work hard and I sweat. Everything I do (is) to help the common good."
But Quinn's carefully tended image as an independent-minded outsider — back to his activist days advocating for consumers and campaigning to shrink the size of government — has been put to the test in the no-holds-barred contest between him and Republican challenger Bruce Rauner.
A federal lawsuit accuses his administration of politically-connected hiring. Legislators have subpoenaed testimony on how taxpayer money was used on anti-violence initiatives during his victorious 2010 campaign. And Rauner persistently reminds voters that Quinn's first government job was under former Gov. Dan Walker, a Democrat who later was imprisoned.
A challenge for Quinn is that Rauner likewise portrays himself as an outsider ready to clean up Illinois' notoriously troubled state government. Come Nov. 4, voters will need to decide who best might carry that mantle, after each candidate has worked to discredit the other.
"Pat Quinn is not the folksy, bumbling fool he'd like us to think he is," said Rauner, who's tried to liken Quinn to his predecessor, disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Quinn was born in Chicago, grew up Hinsdale and attended a suburban Catholic school before earning a Northwestern University law degree. Best known for his early activism, he started his career in politics working as an organizer for Walker's 1972 gubernatorial campaign and later as an administration ombudsman.
In the campaign, Rauner has revived claims that Quinn was Walker's "patronage chief" and then later was on a "ghost payroll" for performing political duties on a commission salary. Quinn disputes that, saying his work involved "a lot of consumer issues," dealing "with individuals who needed a helping hand to get through the maze of government."
Nevertheless, he got a view of the patronage issues that long have plagued Illinois politics. On occasion, he said, lawmakers approached him looking for jobs for friends and family, but Quinn says he wasn't involved in the hiring.
"The staff person who handled personnel was not me," he told AP. "The people who did the hiring were in the departments."
Quinn left Walker's administration in 1975, and became a political organizer who helped push through a constitutional amendment cutting the number of lawmakers in the General Assembly; a similar grassroots push for term limits years later was found unconstitutional. He also laid groundwork for the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer watchdog — attracting media attention with news conferences on otherwise quiet Sundays.
Quinn served on the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals and as revenue director for the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, with whom he didn't always see eye to eye. He was elected treasurer in 1990 and lieutenant governor in 2002, eventually succeeding Blagojevich in 2009. The following year, he narrowly won the governorship outright.
Quinn boasts of successes: Abolishing the death penalty, signing same-sex marriage and helping craft a pension crisis solution, despite angering his party's union allies. But he's faced questions about effectiveness, even with Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature, and he wasn't able to muster support for a temporary income tax extension so schools and social services don't face what he claims would be severe budget cuts.
"I tackled our challenges, even when it required tough, unpopular decisions," Quinn wrote in an AP questionnaire.
Quinn says if he wins re-election, the next term would be his last.
Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen.
All content copyright ©2014 Daily Journal, a division of Home News Enterprises unless otherwise noted.