Pension reform was supposed to be one of Gov. Pat Quinn's biggest accomplishments, an issue he proclaimed he was "put on Earth" to solve after the failure of "12 governors, 13 speakers of the House and 13 Senate presidents" before him.
If last week's result is any indication, fate may have other plans for Quinn. Instead of declaring victory after a yearlong push to overhaul the state's vastly indebted government worker pension system, the Democratic governor joined that same list of leaders who've been unable to bridge wide differences on the politically tricky issue.
Quinn chalked it up to "political timidity" by legislators unwilling to cast tough votes, and there's little doubt lawmakers share in the blame. But the governor's inability to win on several other high-profile issues he had championed before the lame-duck session, including gay marriage and an assault weapons ban, resurrected long-simmering questions about his leadership abilities.
His governing style is often puzzling: He declares deadlines for lawmakers to act, setting himself up for failure when the date comes and goes and nothing happens. He publicly switches positions multiple times on major issues, leaving his allies wondering if they can trust him. And he seems to lack the political skills of past Illinois governors who were able to get stakeholders in a room, find common ground and seal the deal.
"He's not constitutionally cut out, I don't think, to be a manager," said Charles N. Wheeler III, who teaches how to cover state government at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "He is more a rabble-rouser, a populist, a bomb thrower out there stirring the pot. But when it comes to actually figuring out how to get things done, that is not his strong suit."
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, put it more gently.
"It's not his strength, passing legislation in the General Assembly. You know that," said Cullerton, who credited Quinn for generally doing a good job. "He's never been in the General Assembly, but the four leaders have been here. We know how to pass bills."
But rescuing the pension system from $96.8 billion in debt presents a much larger challenge than passing your average bill. It's particularly tricky for ruling Democrats, many of whom campaigned on pension reform but risk angering public-sector union workers who traditionally have been key supporters.
Indeed, Quinn acknowledged that pension reform is likely the toughest vote lawmakers could face. In an interview with the Tribune on Friday, Quinn said he didn't view the latest inaction on the matter as a defeat, but rather a temporary pause in negotiations.
"I was a cross-country runner in high school, long distance. I was captain of the team, and sometimes you'd come to climbing a hill and you'd think, 'Well, down there is the finish line. No, it's another hill to climb.' That's sort of how I see this," said Quinn, who went to Fenwick High School in Oak Park. "We are going to prevail."
Quinn, however, was the one who set the finish line for pension reform, saying he wanted lawmakers to send him a bill before the session ended Wednesday. The governor also requested that lawmakers act to legalize gay marriage, pass an assault weapons ban, expand gambling and allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses. He prevailed only on the last issue.
He pointed to other legislative successes this year, saying few thought he would be able to win a major restructuring of the state's Medicaid health care program for the poor or persuade lawmakers to give up the oft-abused perk of legislative scholarships.
The governor bristled at suggestions that part of the reason he has yet to win pension reform is that he has no experience in the legislature. Despite serving as the state's chief executive, he proudly declares that he's "not an insider" and doesn't want to be one. Quinn said his job is to represent "the people back home" who want change, adding that he expects lawmakers to "put aside personal feelings and vote for the common good."
"Now there are governors who made deals before me, all right. They made deals to make this pension system worse. Let's face the facts," Quinn said. "Somebody ultimately has to step in and stop the merry-go-round and do what's right for the taxpayer."
Quinn also said that "sometimes the only way you get a law passed is you build up public pressure to get it done, and I think I'm good at doing that." Public pressure, outside of newspaper editorial boards, largely has been missing from the pension debate, however.
Quinn did launch an online campaign featuring a cartoon python named Squeezy. The snake was supposed to represent the "squeeze" the pension crisis is putting on the rest of the state budget but was instead mocked, including a satirical Twitter account and a Facebook fan page. That's a far cry from the support Quinn rallied decades ago when he persuaded people to send thousands of tea bags to government offices in protest of legislative pay increases.
Given that pension reform is a tough issue to get the public to rally around, lawmakers say Quinn must do more to convince the people who are doing the actual voting.
Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno, of Lemont, said it's clear that the governor is "well-intentioned" but said he needs to do more heavy lifting behind the scenes in order to reach a compromise. Radogno said one the biggest hurdles is getting Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan to agree on a path forward.
"The governor's office is a powerful one, and he does have influence on members of both parties," Radogno said. "Right now part of the problem is that Democratic legislative leaders are not on the same page. It would be very helpful if he could help make an agreement there."
Madigan seemingly lifted one roadblock when he temporarily backed away from a proposal that would shift some of costs related to teacher pensions away from the state and onto suburban and downstate school districts.
It was not enough. While House lawmakers were scrambling to attract votes on a compromise, Cullerton stood by pension changes that had already passed the Senate, arguing that it was the only proposal that could pass a legal challenge. As a result, some House lawmakers said they wouldn't cast such a controversial vote if it had no future in the Senate.
Cullerton said he plans to pass similar legislation again after a new set of lawmakers were sworn in last week, but this time incorporate some ideas from House lawmakers. Quinn said the bill could be a vehicle forward but acknowledged there were still several hurdles to clear.
For his part, Quinn took several positions throughout the year on what he wanted out of a pension reform bill. At the end of May he sided with House Republicans, only to watch a bill go down to defeat in the Madigan-controlled chamber. By this month, Quinn simply said he wanted a bill that would deal with the pension shortfall.
The changing stances recalled Quinn's push for ethics reform after he took over for impeached ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Quinn hailed a watered-down measure as "landmark" before bowing to pressure and vetoing it. He eventually signed a reworked version. To Quinn, it shows he can be flexible. To lawmakers, it's taken as indecisiveness.
Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and key pension negotiator, said the governor should continue to focus on winning support one lawmaker at a time. Quinn held individual meetings with legislators when it looked like a vote was nearing last week.
Nekritz said she anticipates that when lawmakers begin crafting next year's budget and realize that tax revenues must be spent on the annual pension payment instead of schools, public safety and other priorities, movement might occur.
Quinn found a defender in former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who said people often expect too much from a governor, especially when cutting deals isn't as easy as it was in the past. Ethics reforms partly have done away with a system of patronage where governors used to be able to dole out jobs in exchange for votes, Edgar said. Quinn also can't rely on his own popularity — polls show his job approval is below 30 percent — to try to pressure lawmakers.
"That's the one thing a governor might have, and he doesn't have that," said Edgar, who credited Quinn for sticking his neck out on pensions. "At least in the eyes of the members, they are more popular in their districts than he is. So they are not as apt to follow his lead."
Quinn said he's not about to give up and is encouraged by the new crop of lawmakers, predicting they will set a progressive course not seen in the state's history.
As for the lumps he may take along the way, Quinn said he's used to it and is more concerned about the state's future than his own.
"If you're a political consultant who wants to take no risks, then you would not advise your client to take on pensions," said Quinn, who faces re-election in 2014. "But I believe that no-risk baseball is second division baseball. So we're going to be excellent."