Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn shakes hands during the Illinois State Fair Twilight Parade on Aug. 8 in Springfield, Ill. (Justin L. Fowler/AP)
Chief correspondent

The contest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Illinois is everything you would expect in a state known for its tough politics and colorful personalities. It’s already a brawl, and it’s just getting started.

Incumbent Pat Quinn (D) is one of the most embattled governors in the country. He leads a state with a badly tarnished reputation (the two previous governors were convicted of crimes and sent to prison), the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation and a government with massive fiscal problems due to unfunded pension obligations of roughly $100 billion.

Quinn is an old-fashioned liberal who believes that the philosophy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is as relevant today as it was during the Depression. He came up in Illinois politics as an outsider and still talks as if he is one.

“I believe in being aggressive and progressive,” he said as he sat at his favorite table in a restaurant across from the James R. Thompson Center state office building in downtown Chicago. “I don’t believe there’s any governor in the country who’s been more progressive, reform-minded, and our record proves it.”

He cites ending the death penalty, pushing through civil unions, an expansion of health- care coverage and a $30 billion public works measure that includes money for high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects.

He also raised the state income tax during the depths of the recession, a controversial move that did not solve the state’s fiscal problems. “It was an emergency,” he explained. “We had a five-alarm fire. Unless we raised the revenue to pay these fundamental bills, there would have been radical cuts in our schools, health care and human services.”

Chicago political scion

Quinn’s Democratic opponent bears one of the most famous names in Chicago politics. Bill Daley was a commerce secretary in the Clinton administration, served as White House chief of staff under President Obama and is the son and brother of two Chicago mayors who combined to lead the city for more than 40 years. The Daley name is a mixed blessing among Illinois voters.

Daley has operated in politics behind the scenes for his entire career, as an adviser to his brother, Richard M. Daley; as chairman of Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000; and in various other roles in Democratic campaigns. He twice looked at running for governor in the past but backed away. Now, in his first race as a candidate, he has decided to try to knock out an incumbent from his own party.

Quinn, he says, is “a nice guy” but a weak leader who has failed repeatedly to solve the state’s budgetary problems, even though Democrats control the legislature in Springfield. “A state like ours, any state, needs a strong governor. And if there’s anything that most people, I think, would say, it’s that Pat is not a strong governor,” Daley said from his office on the 25th floor of the JPMorgan Chase building.

Daley served as a senior executive at JPMorgan Chase before and after his time in the Obama White House. Quinn has seized on that experience to attack him. When I asked Quinn how he would respond to criticism that his state has such a high jobless rate, his reply offered a taste of the rough campaign ahead.

“Did this come from a banker who was with an institution that wrecked the American economy? Ran it into a ditch, as President Obama said?” he said. “An institution that has engaged in improper mortgage practices found by the attorney general, caused hardship, ruined the housing industry. People are going to judge who’s on their side when it comes to jobs, and we’ll see how they judge.”

Daley brushes aside such talk. “There’s no game plan, and Pat doesn’t have a vision,” he said. “But I will say this: I do not underestimate Pat. Pat may not be a very good governor . . . but as a politician, he’s a campaigner. That’s all he does, all day every day.”

Quinn’s attention to campaigning and party politics paid off Friday when he won the overwhelming endorsement of Cook County Democrats, the machinery once in the firm grip of the Daleys. Bill Daley barely tried to compete for the endorsement. But the Chicago Tribune’s Rick Pearson wrote that while Quinn’s endorsement by county Democrats was not surprising, “the totality of its backing was.”

Daley noted that his brother was running for state’s attorney in Cook County and that he, too, failed to win the party’s endorsement. But Quinn credited the overwhelming support he received to old-fashioned politics.

“I’m an analog guy in a digital age,” he said as he pulled a notepad from his pocket to show how he took notes in his personal conversations with almost all of the 80 members of the slating committee who voted for the Cook County endorsement.

Dealing with the legislature

When I asked him how he sized up his opponent, Quinn said: “He’s not a reformer. Never has been. He’s not a progressive. Never has been. He’s not an organizer of grass-roots campaigns. Never has been. When you run in Illinois as a Democrat, you’d better be a progressive, you’d better be a reformer and you’d better know how to interact with everyday people. I’ve been doing that for the last 40 years.”

But Daley argues that Quinn has been absent where he could make the most difference. Quinn, he said, has been a bystander in Springfield as the legislature has allowed the state’s fiscal problems to fester and grow worse. “Pat’s very good at the outside game, but he hasn’t worked the legislature,” Daley said.

Quinn took the unprecedented step earlier this summer of using a line-item veto to suspend the appropriation for legislators’ pay. He says he will not allow lawmakers to be paid until they solve the pension problem. Daley called it grandstanding and a potentially terrible precedent that could allow a Republican governor to undo progressive reforms. Quinn said it was necessary to get the attention of the legislators and believes a resolution will be forthcoming.

Illinois has suffered badly because of its leadership. George Ryan, a former Republican governor, was just released from prison. Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor, was impeached and is serving 14 years in prison for soliciting bribes, among them one in exchange for the Senate seat left vacant when Obama was elected president.

Quinn was lieutenant governor under Blagojevich and succeeded him. “We’ve straightened that out,” he said. “We run things with integrity.”

But Daley argues that the state under Quinn continues to suffer from a poor image. Neighboring states, he noted, all have lower unemployment rates than Illinois, and the Land of Lincoln lags behind other industrial states in the Midwest that are led by Republicans. “We don’t have a pride about us anymore,” he said. “There’s a perception that we’re just wallowing in all this stuff.”

Other contenders?

The primary field may not be completely set. Recently, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the daughter of longtime state House of Representatives Speaker Michael Madigan, announced that she would not run for the Democratic nomination. But state Sen. Kwame Raoul, who leads the conference committee dealing with pension reform, has said he might join the race.

The primary contest, which early polls show is competitive, is only the first hurdle for Quinn. Republicans have a competitive primary of their own. Should Quinn survive the primary, he will be one of the Republicans’ major targets in November 2014. Daley said he doubts Quinn can win a general election, given his weaknesses.

“I’d like to see unity,” Quinn said. “I went through a primary in 2010. It’s no day at the beach. And we won, but it’s like a family fight. Who wants that? But it’s a free country. If you want to run an election, see you at the starting line. I’m not afraid of competition.”

For previous columns by Dan Balz,
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