Now the state's ultimate insider

Gov. Pat Quinn at the Governor's office Friday in Springfield. (Tribune/ Michael Tercha) >> The new governor

SPRINGFIELD — Coming after deposed and dysfunctional Rod Blagojevich, Gov. Pat Quinn is hoping to connect with an exhausted public by casting himself as an earnest reformer eager to start righting the ship of state.

"Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize," Quinn said on each of his first two days in office.

It's one of the favorite bromides for the slogan-slinging former cross-country captain at Fenwick High School known for his energy, modest lifestyle and unceasing devotion to his pet causes.

Political gimmickry and populist rhetoric are also part of the mix for a man who's pushed some high-profile reforms but not always lived up to the lofty image he sells voters. He's an "outsider" who's been bouncing around politics for 37 years and once left state government amid a ghost-payrolling probe. And he's an ethics advocate who defended Blagojevich from corruption accusations until after both were safely re-elected.

Now the longtime populist warrior finally gets to see if his approach measures up to the reality of having to govern Illinois at one of the state's most desperate times.

He takes the reins armed with his idealism facing a steely, high-level political operator in House Speaker Michael Madigan, a fellow Chicago Democrat. The speaker's interests might not nicely dovetail with Quinn's as his daughter, Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, looms as a potential governor challenger a little more than a year from now.

"I think this is his test of whether he's grown and matured to the point of holding the office," Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) said of Quinn.

The office of governor was always on Quinn's political radar, despite a campaign record with successes—one term as state treasurer in 1990 and two as lieutenant governor—outnumbered by four statewide losses.

Republican Judy Baar Topinka, who took over for Quinn as treasurer in 1995, said she knew then he was angling to be governor someday. Topinka said her staff was cleaning out Quinn's old offices and found what she called a "do-it-yourself" governor campaign kit, replete with "Quinn for Governor" bumper stickers.

"It had fallen behind a cabinet," Topinka said. "I wasn't shocked."

But the prospect of Gov. Quinn is shocking to many Illinois politicians who thought of him as a gadfly, a master of holding Sunday news conferences to gain media attention on traditionally slow news days. There he would pitch plans such as electing taxpayer and insurance watchdogs or non-binding referendum questions that looked good on a ballot but had no real effect, such as a ban on naming rights for Soldier Field.

His two biggest achievements, the result of tapping into voter anger, occurred more than a quarter-century ago: cutting the size of the Illinois House by one-third and creating the consumer advocacy Citizens Utility Board.

All of it comes from a guy who said he considers himself at heart a "citizen organizer," even if now he's the one driving the machine instead of raging against it.

"It's not exactly an easy path I had," Quinn told the Tribune. "I had no political patrons or ward committeeman backing me for any job."

Yet critics, including some Democrats he's fought over the years, contend Quinn's calls for reform smack of hypocrisy. And they said his outsider image is belied by a long history in government that includes his involvement in patronage politics.

Nearly a month after Blagojevich's arrest on corruption charges, Quinn formed the Illinois Reform Commission to come up with recommendations on ethics law improvements.

But as Blagojevich's running mate in seeking re-election in October 2006—five months after federal investigators revealed they were investigating "endemic hiring fraud" in the governor's administration—Quinn defended Blagojevich and said the then-governor has "always been a person who's honest and one of integrity."

After the election, Quinn began distancing himself from Blagojevich's scandal. But he has taken donations from some political insiders with ties to the ex-governor.

Campaign records show convicted Blagojevich fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko donated more than $48,000 to Quinn's campaigns. Quinn said he's since donated all of that money and more to charities.