CHICAGO — Gov. Pat Quinn is characterizing his tenure as one of fairness — trying to create jobs by inking a capital construction plan, legalizing same-sex marriage and ending Illinois' death penalty — and hinted Tuesday that he'll stay focused on that principle by returning to his activist roots after leaving office.
With just days until Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner takes over Illinois, the Chicago Democrat offered a snapshot of how he would like to frame his legacy during an emotional goodbye speech to the City Club of Chicago.
Focusing on achievements, like doubling the earned income tax credit and the state's falling unemployment rate, Quinn painted a self-portrait of a leader tasked with hard choices at a difficult time in Illinois history. Unaddressed were parts of his record that political experts see as a mixed bag, such as his struggle to connect with lawmakers and leaving behind voluminous financial problems.
Quinn — tapped as lieutenant governor to run the state after two predecessors as governor were engulfed in scandal — didn't stick to a chronology during his address. He oscillated between his political philosophy to benefit "the common good," his past as an organizer, his signing of landmark legislation, his task of considering clemency petitions and the future.
"It's important that we always be progressive and be willing to make tough decisions on fundamental reforms that may not be popular at the time, but stand the test of time," he told an audience that included civic leaders and administration members. "I'm always looking for causes like that."
He previewed his future plans for the first time since losing on Nov. 4, saying he'd like to pursue issues like veterans rights and organize petition drives.
It was a glimpse of vintage Quinn, who became a political organizer in the 1970s. He advocated term limits and helped push through a constitutional amendment cutting the number of lawmakers in the legislature before he was elected treasurer and lieutenant governor. He took over as governor in 2009, after now-imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was indicted on corruption charges.
"Illinois was a laughingstock," Quinn said, describing a "crisis of corruption," the recession and fiscal problems. "I inherited all that."
Few disagree with Quinn's characterization of that time and experts credit some of his initial moves with helping change the state's reputation, including signing campaign finance regulations, legislation abolishing the death penalty and a $31 billion capital plan.
"He may not rank among the absolute top governors of Illinois," said John Jackson at Southern Illinois University's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. "But he was not a failure across the board and had some successes that are certainly worth noting and being remembered for."
Still, Quinn wasn't able to fully capitalize on relationships with lawmakers or always successfully negotiate with legislative leaders. He especially irritated lawmakers by withholding their paychecks over the pension crisis.
"He picked fights that were unnecessary and that hurt him with the General Assembly and his effectiveness," said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "Quinn just falls short in terms of really having made a mark on the governor's office. There's a lot of unfinished business there."
That includes a lingering backlog of billions in unpaid bills, a massive revenue drop from the expiring income tax increase Quinn couldn't get lawmakers to make permanent and an uncertain outcome of the pension overhaul, a law Quinn signed but is undergoing legal challenges.
Quinn's public reputation as a reformer also took a hit last year when a federal lawsuit challenged hiring at his Department of Transportation and a 2010 anti-violence program he championed came under investigation. Quinn has maintained that he fixed problems when they arose.
He didn't address those difficulties Tuesday. Instead he told personal stories, choking up while reading a note describing his late father's military service.
Quinn said he's been going through a "huge mountain" of clemency petitions. He's also gearing up for a legislative session later this week in which lawmakers are expected to consider legislation for a 2016 special election to replace the late Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. Quinn also did not rule out the possibility of a last-minute push for a minimum wage increase, something he's championed and voters supported in a nonbinding resolution.
"It's important that we always keep that issue in mind because the people voted on it," Quinn said. "It's important for the Legislature to pay attention to what the people want."
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