“Off topic? I can’t imagine what that would be,” cracked Gov. Pat Quinn last week during a press conference. Just hours before, his lieutenant governor had announced that she would not be Quinn’s 2014 running mate.
Quinn usually does a pretty good job during his press conferences of convincing reporters to wait to ask off-topic questions until all questions about the subject at hand have been asked. Last week was no exception.
Quinn was holding a presser with Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to discuss her conditional approval to allow Illinois to move forward with an online health insurance exchange – a major step toward implementing the president’s national health care plan.
“You could get caught by stray bullets,” Quinn jokingly warned the folks who had gathered with him to make the announcement. “You don’t have to be part of the firing squad,” he added with a laugh.
He knew what was coming.
Earlier in the morning, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute had released a poll showing that Quinn was badly trailing Lisa Madigan in a hypothetical primary matchup. By mid-morning, the late Sen. Simon’s daughter Sheila had announced that she wouldn’t be running with him again. Simon’s aides say she didn’t know about the poll from her late father’s think tank, but the rich irony wasn’t lost on those of us who watch these things.
Sheila Simon was chosen by Quinn in 2010 after Democratic primary voters made the unfortunate mistake of nominating a pawn broker with a rather “colorful” past by the name of Scott Lee Cohen. After details of Mr. Cohen’s alleged assault of a massage parlor girlfriend lover emerged, Cohen dropped out of the race.
Quinn didn’t pick Simon for her political acumen. She lost a Carbondale mayor’s race that pretty much everybody thought was in the bag.
Instead, she was chosen mainly for her name. The governor still idolizes the late Sen. Simon, and that name is still held in high esteem among older Democrats.
Ms. Simon, however, seemed to chafe at times under Quinn’s leadership. Quinn demanded too much control of her budget. She had to fight for every dime, every hire, every square inch of office space. As with most of her predecessors, Simon found that the office wasn’t worth much.
And it doesn’t take a political scientist to see that Quinn could very well be doomed next time around. He barely won in 2010, mainly because he convinced voters that his heart was in the right place. But after 4 years on the job, the public still intensely dislikes him. The Simon Institute’s recent poll pegged his job approval rating at just 32.8 percent. Other polls have shown even worse numbers.
Anyway, back to last week’s big announcement by Simon. Usually with these sorts of announcements, some sort of groundwork is done beforehand. A newspaper is given a tip, for instance. Top insiders are told what to expect. That didn’t happen this time, though.
I’d told my subscribers several days before that Simon was planning to run for another office and that Quinn was rumored to be looking for an African-American running mate, but that didn’t come directly from inside. Some top Quinn staffers were completely caught off guard by last week’s announcement, which just fueled the fires.
So, the mainstream media wasn’t kind, and the poll’s timing didn’t help matters much. The fact that Quinn didn’t appear with Simon at her announcement further underscored the curiosity of the whole thing.
Word from inside is that Simon told Quinn back in December that she had set her sights on comptroller. But she reportedly assumed that Republican incumbent Judy Baar Topinka would be retiring. Not happening.
So, treasurer – which will be an open seat contest if incumbent Republican Dan Rutherford pulls the trigger on governor – is now on the radar screen, as well as attorney general if incumbent Democrat Lisa Madigan tries to move up to governor.
For Quinn, though, last week’s optics were just terrible. Three straight polls have now shown him doing poorly against Attorney General Madigan. His 2010 running mate abruptly announces that she’s abandoning him without even knowing where she’ll land. And he’s left to face reporters alone on what should have been a major news day for him.
This was, to say the least, not an auspicious beginning for Quinn’s re-election effort.