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Commentary: Does the Illinois governor have what it takes to be elected?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 3, 2010 - Gov. Patrick Quinn has discovered the pluses and perils of being a principal in the establishment he spent decades attacking.

His decency, civility, work ethic and sense of public service have provided a welcome contrast to the narcissism, venality and fecklessness of Rod Blagojevich. Polls reflect the inclination of Illinoisans, especially fellow Democrats, to applaud the change. Yet, as he seeks in this crucial election year to hold the office he assumed last January, his uneven transition from an often pot-roiling populist to a chief executive who must master, manage and reform state government has spotlighted troubling traits as well.

Illinois’ 41st governor has skillfully employed his incumbency to woo Democratic primary voters and the Cook County ward lords he regularly castigated while a rebel seldom without a cause. But now, as the man in charge, he must defend himself against inconsistencies and administrative breakdowns.

Never has Quinn enjoyed the influence, the visibility and the celebrity that insider status conveys. Nor has he experienced the responsibility, scrutiny and accountability it demands. As the governor breaks ground on job-creating construction projects and garners labor support for his candidacy, he must explain why he embraced gambling expansion as a funding source for the capital improvements after scolding Blagojevich for doing likewise.

As he touts ethics reform and greater transparency, he struggles to justify his initially hollow, then contradictory responses to the stealthy, premature release of inmates convicted of violent crimes and drunk driving as part of a budget-driven, prisoner pruning initiative supposedly limited to less menacing ex-offenders.

As he courts young voters by highlighting his role in providing $200 million for need-based scholarships, he must answer for backing the additional spending without revenues to support it. State Comptroller Dan Hynes, who is challenging Quinn for their party’s nomination, has accused the governor of erratic, inept and even disingenuous helmsmanship. Although much of the Democratic power structure appears to regard a Quinn triumph as inevitable, Hynes hopes to outduel Quinn in their air war of January television ads and win the ground war of identifying supporters and getting them to the polls – a particularly important factor if the primary turnout is not robust.

Among other things, Hynes can cite his early and frequent criticism of Blagojevich’s reckless spending and borrowing policies – although he temporarily became a whispering watchdog as they both sought re-election in 2006 under the Democratic banner. His prescient warnings of chaos earned the elected comptroller a public sassing from Blagojevich’s appointed budget director, John Filan, a long-time Quinn pal, who snipped, “If you don’t have a solution, then stick with the responsibilities you have.”

Incredibly, Quinn relied on that brazen budget architect for guidance after he became governor with the promise of a new day in Illinois. But can Hynes, unproven and untested when it comes to leading a large, multi-faceted enterprise, demonstrate more effective stewardship if he assumes the reins? Can he compellingly communicate the need for unpleasant fiscal medicine?

Or what about the Republican gubernatorial candidates who have offered a passel of bromides and a paucity of specifics about how they would deal with a monstrous deficit? Or Rich Whitney, the Green Party candidate who offers bold programs without solid evidence he could advance them? Those seeking the governorship of Illinois have the luxury of advocating positive change without being required to produce it in real time. If they actually get the opportunity to govern, it gets excruciatingly harder.

Just ask the suddenly empowered Pat Quinn, who is more burdened and less judgmental than he was a year ago.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.

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