As Republican governors across the U.S. gain momentum with conservative agendas, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has stood out for signing a string of laws over the past three months achieving longstanding liberal goals: abolishing the death penalty, legalizing civil unions and raising income taxes.
It's an extraordinary start to Quinn's first full term in office and, if nothing else, guarantees the Chicago Democrat will be remembered as more than just the guy who replaced ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich after his arrest on federal corruption charges.
While Quinn deserves some of the credit, passage of the headline-grabbing laws had less to do with the governor and more with timing and the Democratic majorities in the legislature where powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton run the show. The success of the liberal initiatives also does not ensure that Quinn will have an easy time pushing the rest of his political agenda at the state Capitol, where he's widely seen as indecisive and less than deft at negotiating with lawmakers.
"A significant portion of that is (Quinn) being at the right place at the right time," said state Sen. Kwame Raoul, a chief sponsor of the legislation to abolish Illinois' death penalty.
The law abolishing the death penalty passed without any help from Quinn, who signed it even though he said he supported capital punishment. He spoke out for civil unions during the fall campaign and helped round up votes, but that issue also was driven by its legislative sponsors.
And while Quinn called for higher income taxes for two years, lawmakers didn't take action until they were safely past the November election, when Madigan and Cullerton made clear they supported a tax increase twice the size of what Quinn proposed _ and then delivered the necessary votes to get it passed.
"It's not the fact that we're the most liberal state in the world, it's just that there's a sort of tipping point that we've gone over and that allowed this particular situation, all these things to come to a head at the same time," said Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
That tipping point came during a lame-duck legislative session after the Democrats lost some of their majority in the November midterm elections but while the defeated lawmakers could still vote. Quinn, who'd been in office nearly two years after inheriting the job from Blagojevich, eked out a win in November over a conservative Republican challenger guaranteeing that a like-minded governor would decide on the bills passed in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
"It's one party in control so there's not nearly the pushback that you would have if it were mixed control or if Republicans. Clearly, they would be more conservative on all of these issues than we see with the Democrats," said state Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno.
Illinois' liberal agenda has all played out while the rest of the country is paddling in the opposite direction. In Wisconsin, the new Republican governor signed a bill stripping public employees of nearly all their collective bargaining rights because he said it was needed to help save the state money. Florida's new GOP governor just rejected federal money for high-speed rail because he was afraid of future high operating costs. And Indiana's majority Republican lawmakers are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage and civil unions.
As a result, Quinn and the rest of Illinois have become a target for Republicans, who point to the state and its massive budget problems as what is wrong with big-spending state governments.
After the state raised personal and corporate income taxes to help balance the budget, several states began openly courting Illinois businesses that may be unhappy about the higher taxes. GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Quinn a "disaster" and launched a print and radio ad campaign to encourage businesses in Illinois to relocate to his state.
The tax increase is estimated to bring in about $6.8 billion in the upcoming fiscal year but that's not nearly enough to get the state out of debt because Illinois still has $9 billion or $10 billion in overdue bills. Quinn needs Republican support to borrow money to pay the overdue bills but it's something GOP lawmakers have resisted, especially after the tax increase, and they show no sign of letting up.
"That's where we really see the rest of the nation moving in a more conservative direction on fiscal matters and Illinois _ with the large tax increase and continuing desire to borrow and continue to spend _ is out of step," Radogno said.
Quinn also will need continued help from Madigan, Cullerton and other Democrats. Lawmakers said the new Illinois laws help Quinn politically by building support among the legislators, and now he'll need their support as he pushes ahead with unpopular ideas to help solve the state's woeful budget problems, such as borrowing money to pay overdue state bills and consolidating school districts to save money.
Republican Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, who lost to Quinn in November, predicted a tough re-election battle for the governor if he runs in 2014.
"I think history will remember his record poorly, other states in the nation knew you had to refrain from overspending, reduce spending and not over tax. He did just the opposite," Brady said.