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Commentary: 'Quinn'tessential woes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 29, 2010 - Fielding arrows is stickier than firing them. Just ask Pat Quinn.

His Quinntessential populism, propelled through the decades by his assaults on the antics and motives of public officials, put him in position to become governor; now he defends himself against accusations he fired his inspector general for pouncing on ethical violations.

He built an image and a following by harvesting voter outrage over pay raises for officeholders; now he tries to justify double-digit increases for his aides while the state cuts services to at-risk children.

Whenever Gov. Quinn's ethics are questioned, as they were when he accepted a $75,000 contribution from the Teamsters shortly before taking pro-union action on legislation, he declares that expediency would never dent his integrity armor, let alone pierce it.

"In all the things I have done as governor, lieutenant governor and state treasurer, I follow my conscience; I always do the right thing," he dangerously boasts.

After years as a moralizing maverick, Pat Quinn has become empowered and embattled - and he has handled neither clout nor criticism effectively. So, Sen. Bill Brady may well slip into the chief executive's chair despite his flimsy, flawed approach to resolving a $13 billion budget deficit and serious concerns about whether he possesses the intellectual heft, the governmental breadth and the statesmanship to lead us through these most trying of times.

Quinn's long-time allies, including the firm that has handled his paid media, bemoan the governor's lack of discipline and focus in a job and campaign that demand them. He has roamed and rambled on the stump and in the State House, rarely pausing long enough on a point or proposal to hammer it home.

As a candidate, he has yet to deliver a clear, convincing message. Even more important, he has exhibited neither the persistence nor consistency required to give a governor any chance of prodding timorous lawmakers into making tough revenue and spending decisions.

Quinn spent most of his adult life rallying citizens to apple-pie causes, like battling utility-rate increases, enhancing benefits for veterans and downsizing the Illinois House. As governor, he has done little to educate and engage men and women throughout the state on the distasteful subject of tax hikes and spending cuts, and it is unlikely he will do so in the next two months while Brady offers bromides and refuses to talk specifics on the massive spending slashes he advocates.

Instead, Quinn has returned to his populist oven for tasty pastry.

He waved his amendatory veto wand to transform two mundane election bills into measures he touts on the campaign trail as antidotes to insider politics. One would allow Illinoisans to vote in primaries without declaring a party affiliation; the other paves the way for them to introduce ethics legislation into the General Assembly through an initiative process.

"Public participation is a founding principle of our democracy," says Quinn, who has decried the state constitution's strict limits on citizen-enacted law changes.

Never mind that our founders established a representative democracy to make the laws and an Electoral College to choose the president as insulations against the whims of the masses. Never mind that fiscal nightmares in California, Florida and other states have been exacerbated by myopic citizen initiatives that wreaked havoc on state and local budgets. Never mind that Illinois lawmakers almost certainly will send his radical amendatory vetoes to the graveyard in which those of his predecessors are buried.

Hey, it's fun to sling arrows at officeholders again - and pretend, at least for a moment or two, that you have not become one of them.

Mike Lawrence, former reporter, press secretary for then-Gov. Jim Edgar and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, is retired. He writes a twice-monthly column.