Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn acknowledges the applause after signing the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act into law, making Illinois the 16th state in the nation to embrace full marriage equality for same sex couples, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, in Chicago. The law takes effect June 1, 2014. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Updated: January 23, 2014 6:37AM
Without a doubt, the biggest Illinois politics story of the year is how Gov. Pat Quinn went from hopelessly lame duck to sitting pretty.
I mean, who woulda thunk a year ago that Quinn would not be facing a serious primary challenge?
Heck, go back six months to the May 31 end of the spring legislative session, when the Statehouse collectively crashed into a brick wall.
The gay marriage bill wasn’t called for a vote in the House, and Quinn looked foolish by claiming (wrongly) that the votes were there to pass it.
The pension reform bill went nowhere and Quinn looked completely impotent.
Quinn refused to engage in talks on a federal appellate panel’s order to rewrite the state’s public gun carrying laws and ended up vetoing the bill — a true abdication of leadership.
By the end of the spring session, Attorney General Lisa Madigan was about to conclude a six-month fund-raising binge, which sure made it looked like she was gearing up to oppose Quinn in the primary.
Democratic gubernatorial contender Bill Daley visited the Statehouse near the end of session to loudly denounce the governor’s comically inept attempts at leadership.
Quinn was the guy who couldn’t get anything done. And he looked like he was toast to pretty much everybody.
But then, unexpectedly, things started going his way. Lisa Madigan decided not to run after (she claimed) she couldn’t convince her powerful House speaker father to retire.
Then Bill Daley abruptly decided he just wasn’t cut out for the political life and dropped out as well.
Hillary Clinton jokingly referred to Quinn as the “luckiest politician” on the planet. She wasn’t far from wrong.
But Quinn made some of his own luck. He came up with the idea of appointing a rare “conference committee” to deal with the pension issue. The idea was to get the negotiations out of the hands of the legislative leaders, who were basically at each others’ throats back then, and let some respected rank-and-file members handle it.
Speaker Michael Madigan initially hated the idea, but eventually allowed the committee to be appointed. He warned the governor, though, that Quinn would have to find the votes for whatever his new project came up with.
The committee idea worked. Members moved the ball forward in a spirit of compromise while the legislative leaders had time for their own tempers to cool off. One of the committee’s members, Sen. Kwame Raoul, seriously considered running for governor after Lisa Madigan dropped out, but decided against it because, he said, he needed to finish the pension reform work he’d started. Keeping a prominent African-American out of the race was a huge and unexpected side benefit for Quinn.
Eventually, the leaders took the issue back from the committee, came to an agreement and with a bit of help from Quinn (and, despite his earlier warnings, a lot of muscle by Madigan) passed it over the strong objections of three of the four Republican candidates for governor — another Quinn win.
And in the meantime, the House had passed the gay marriage bill, with an assist from Quinn. The governor signed the legislation into law in front of a packed Chicago auditorium, TV cameras everywhere.
The governor appears so silly at times and so inept that it’s always easy to count him out. But he held off Dan Hynes in the 2010 primary and won the general election during the worst Democratic year since Harry Truman’s days. Yes, his poll numbers still aren’t good, but you just can’t ever count this guy out.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.