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Mr. Clean sits on top in Illinois

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David Broder
March 1, 2009
— In his first few weeks in office, President Barack Obama has caught very few good breaks. But last week he had one. When he entertained the nation’s governors at his first formal state dinner, he did not have to figure out what to do about Rod Blagojevich.

The scandal-plagued leader of Obama’s home state of Illinois was impeached and removed from office Jan. 29, and that same day was replaced by Patrick Quinn, who was in his second term as lieutenant governor.


Quinn, 60, had been bouncing on and off the public payroll ever since the early 1970s, when he was given a patronage job by the later-convicted Gov. Dan Walker. Although I know many politicians from my native state, I had never met Quinn until he came to Washington for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association and the White House dinner.


He is immediately engaging, a balding, beefy guy with no pretension who conveys a sense that what you see is what you get.


Quinn inherits a mess that could be as daunting as Obama’s. Blagojevich was at war with the other elected statewide officials and the Democratic Legislature even before the FBI taped him discussing what sure sounded like a plot to auction off Obama’s Senate seat.


As a result, the state’s bills have not been paid for a long time. A week after Quinn was sworn in, the state comptroller announced that the current-year deficit would hit almost $9 billion, putting Illinois “at the precipice of the worst fiscal crisis in the state’s history.” When Quinn submits his first budget this month, he may well have to slash programs and raise taxes.


Neither will be easy for a populist politician who has cultivated a reputation as a cheapskate when it comes to his personal life and his attitude toward public finance.


Quinn told me that his role model is the late Paul Simon, the Illinois senator who combined a passion for improving education with equally ardent support for a balanced-budget constitutional amendment. Quinn cherishes a bow tie from Simon’s collection, a gift from Simon’s daughter.


Like Simon, Quinn’s strict ethics and his unusual assortment of policy views made him an odd duck among Springfield politicians. As a young political activist, he launched successful petition campaigns to reduce the size of the Legislature and end the practice of its members drawing their full salary for the year on the first day of the session.


As Quinn cheerfully recalled, when he went to Springfield after those votes and was introduced from the visitors’ gallery, “I was booed for three minutes by the members.” Quinn found himself tethered to Blagojevich because of a quirk in Illinois election laws. In the primary, candidates for the two top offices run separately, but in the general election, the governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket, just like the president and vice president.


Since their re-election in 2006, Quinn was completely ostracized by Blagojevich and, candidly, ignored by most of the rest of Illinois officialdom. Now he has lost no time demonstrating how different he is from his predecessor.


He quickly named a high-powered ethics commission to “rescue a trust deficit that’s worse than our fiscal deficit,” as he told me. A realist about the corruption problem endemic to Springfield, Quinn added, “I have to get the reforms passed by May 31. There are already old-timers in the Legislature who are saying, ‘Well, we got rid of the bad guy, so now we can go back to business as usual.’”


The legacy he could not escape was Roland Burris, the lackluster veteran pol who eagerly accepted Blagojevich’s appointment to Obama’s Senate seat. Quinn told me he had warned Burris in advance that taking the job from Blagojevich “would be a terrible mistake, but he wouldn’t listen.”


As Burris belatedly began acknowledging the extent of his overtures to Blagojevich, Quinn joined the calls for the senator to resign, and he has urged the Legislature to pass a bill creating a special election if Burris is forced out.


Quinn’s own term expires next year, and he has not announced whether he will run. Meanwhile, it will be fascinating to see if Illinois can adjust to having a clean governor.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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