Pat Quinn is the most vulnerable Democratic governor of 2014. And things just got worse for him.

The road to reelection for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) was always going to be difficult. But it looks even harder at the end of a troubling week for the Democrat when a federal probe of an anti-violence initiative he started has received widespread attention in the state.


Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D). (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

At minimum, the episode is an unwelcome distraction; at most, it could become a big blow to the good-government image Quinn has carefully crafted, close watchers say.

"It's obviously very early in terms of the details, but one of the things that Pat Quinn has been able to hang his hat on for about three decades is his positioning himself as a reformer, an outsider and a champion of good government," said Republican strategist Doug O'Brien, a former aide to Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). "This really has the potential to undermine what was really one of the few positives he had going in terms of his public image."

David Ormsby, a former aide to state House Speaker Michael Madigan (D), took a similar view. "The pillar of his political strength throughout his decades in Illinois politics has been an ingrained reputation for honesty and frugality," said Ormsby, who later added, "If Quinn loses in the fall, insiders will point to this week when the governor essentially lost the race."

Dubbed the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, Quinn launched the anti-violence program in the fall of 2010, the year he ran for a full term as governor. It has come under scrutiny from federal and state prosecutors. The Department of Justice has sought documents related to the program, the Chicago Tribune reported Thursday. Earlier in the week, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was looking into the program.

Quinn stopped funding the effort in 2012. Critics have cast the initiative as a "political slush fund." Quinn's office said it supports any investigation into the matter.

"If there is an inquiry, we fully support it. We have zero tolerance for any mismanagement at any state agency. That's why the governor abolished this agency nearly two years ago," said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.

A former lieutenant governor, Quinn ascended to the top job in 2009 following the departure of embattled Democrat Rod Blagojevich. He won a competitive race in 2010 and faces another tough contest this year, due in large part to the fiscal woes Illinois has experienced in recent years.

Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the investigations into the anti-violence program will have some effect in the campaign, especially since Illinois has long been plagued by political malfeasance. But he doesn't think they will decide the election.

"It certainly doesn't help him in his reelection, but I don't think it will by itself" sink his chances, said Simpson.

Quinn's Republican opponent Bruce Rauner is running as an outsider with the private sector know-how necessary to right the state's fiscal ship. In a statement responding to the federal probe, he sought to liken Quinn to corrupt officials who served before him.

"This is a sad event that the people of Illinois have seen too many times. The people deserve better than to have yet another governor under federal investigation," said Rauner.

Quinn's campaign said in a statement that he has waged a robust effort to eliminate corruption.

"While there is no doubt that Governor Quinn inherited an ethical crisis from two corrupt governors in a row, everyone knows he has been cleaning up state government since the day he arrived and when a problem comes to light he works to immediately get to the bottom of the issue, root out any problems whenever they should arise, and create new reforms and safeguards," the campaign said.

By late 2013, things were starting to look up for Quinn. In the summer, he averted a primary challenge from Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D), who would have been a formidable opponent. Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley (D) ended his bid against Quinn in the fall. The move left the governor free to coast to renomination while Rauner was locked in an expensive and nasty primary. Democrats want to cast Rauner as on out of touch wealthy businessman in the same way they tarred Mitt Romney in 2012.

But lately, Quinn has received attention for unflattering developments that have complicated the effort to define Rauner. Quinn recently drew scrutiny when his campaign's Twitter account tweeted a controversial article. The probing of his anti-violence program has been covered extensively by local media.

A large part of Quinn's path to victory will depend upon how negative a light Democrats can cast Rauner in during the run-up to November. But the more the focus is on Quinn, the more difficult his path becomes.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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