Pat Quinn is back.
After a quiet year out of the limelight—licking his wounds, giving a new governor a grace period, and doing volunteer work— he is once again trying to shake up the political system, his favorite activity for more than four decades as an elected official, a candidate, and a populist crusader.
This time it’s a campaign to impose term limits on Chicago’s mayor.
Quinn has rocked boats and tilted at windmills since the early `70s, generating roughly equal amounts of admiration and scorn.
A former Democratic governor—pundits called him “accidental” after Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment elevated him from lieutenant governor to the top spot in 2009— he became Illinois’ duly elected chief executive a year later by defeating Republican Bill Brady.
Not surprisingly, his tenure as governor was rocky.
At heart Quinn’s a self-styled, reform-minded gadfly—passionate, tireless and quirky—with a management style some consider too undisciplined.
That alienated him from conventional, buttoned-down legislative leaders in Springfield, who never embraced him, and eventually Illinois voters, who replaced him with political novice Bruce Rauner in 2014.
Quinn was also an aggressive reformer on Cook County’s tax appeals board, as City of Chicago revenue director and as state treasurer.
He would have kicked up dust in the U.S. Senate and the Illinois secretary of state’s office too, but he lost those races.
This dude loves to run, and he loves to crusade, always as a defender of the little guy—the beleaguered taxpayer—but critics consider him a self-promoting liberal opportunist.
One thing is indisputable: He’s a master of the ultimate populist tool— citizen initiatives—petition drives that put referendums on the ballot for voters to consider.
In 1980, he led the only successful Illinois campaign to pass a binding referendum— the so-called “cutback amendment” that, for better or worse, reduced the size of the Illinois General Assembly by a third.
He was also an architect of advisory referendums that ultimately created CUB—the Citizens Utility Board—and several other progressive initiatives that were ruled unconstitutional.
His new group, Take Charge Chicago, is mounting a petition drives this summer to put two amendments on the city ballot in an upcoming city election: One creating an independent elected office of Consumer Advocate to protect taxpayers, the other imposing a two-term limit on Chicago mayors, which would prevent Mayor Rahm Emanuel from running again in 2019.
Quinn says Chicago is the only big city in the country without mayoral term limits, and it’s time to change that:
“The office of Chicago mayor belongs to the people of Chicago, and the people should tell the mayor what the rules are instead of the mayor telling us.”
Given widespread voter dissatisfaction with Emanuel’s job performance, Quinn’s campaign should be well received.
It’s a grassroots effort—he loaned it $25,000 and rounded up longtime loyalists to help him—and if they don’t have enough signatures by the August deadline to get on this November’s ballot they’ll have another chance in the March 2018 primary.
The Better Government Association hasn’t endorsed term limits, but Illinois voters overwhelmingly support them, and we’ll revisit the question later this year.
As for Quinn, he may run for office again—it’s in his DNA—but for now it’s good to have him back in the valuable role of “outsider,” raising issues “insiders”— elected officials—would rather avoid.
That makes him a “gadfly” in the best sense of the word.