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Pat Quinn, Political Prisoner

A case study in how electoral politics stymies real reform

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Over a pot of tea at Petro's, the politician-infested diner across the street from the Thompson Center, Pat Quinn was extolling his accomplishments as Illinois governor. Actually, he was extolling the commercials about his accomplishments. "Mayor Daley's in one of them," Quinn said. "He's saying the whole state of Illinois should be grateful to me for getting Ford to expand here, 1,200 new jobs, and then we have the president reiterating: 1,200 new jobs, an entire second shift."

Quinn has been an occasional critic of Daley through the years—but that's in the past now: "He's been a good mayor, I'm not perfect, nobody's perfect. When I got sworn in, he called me right away. I go over to see him all the time. He's strongly for me, he's a good friend, he's helpful."

Some political observers think Daley did Quinn a disservice by pulling his hat out of the ring in September, instead of waiting until after the November 2 election. Quinn needs a big Chicago turnout to win, and the Daley declaration yanked everyone's gaze past November 2 to the mayoral election next February. But Quinn said it wasn't so; he was sensing "more enthusiasm and energy now than before the mayor made his announcement. People are paying more attention to politics and government." And individual Democratic ward organizations, he added, were eager to crank out the vote next week, to show their muscle and better position themselves for the donnybrook to come.

This assessment could be accurate, or it could be wishful thinking. Quinn has always tended to find the sunshine. He did have reason to be buoyant on this recent morning: the polls showed him gaining on his Republican opponent, state senator Bill Brady, promising a tight race. The Tribune had just endorsed Brady, but that was no surprise; the daily's been trashing Quinn since he became governor, and had little use for him before that either. "I'm 0-for-14 now with them lifetime," he said with a grin. Alluding to the recent New York Times story describing a frat house corporate culture at the Trib, the governor got his digs in: "I'm not sure I want to be loved by the Tribune right now," he said, and pointed to a $25,000 campaign contribution from Tribune chairman Sam Zell to Brady as evidence that the paper's take on the governor's race wasn't credible. The Tribune "seems to have an ad hominem approach, but I got a tough hide," he added. "Last week I didn't get endorsed by the Tribune, but I did get endorsed by the Sun-Times, the AFL-CIO, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and Barack Obama. I'd rather go with that, frankly, than with the people who are sending racy videos around Tribune Tower."

This must be a heady time for the 61-year-old Quinn. A political lifer, he's spent most of his career on the fringes, always stressing his identification with the average joe as opposed to those wealthy powerbrokers in charge. He helped create the Citizens Utility Board, the watchdog group that has blocked numerous utility rate hikes since its founding in 1984. Less well regarded is the "cutback amendment" he brought about through public referendum. Capitalizing on voter anger over a legislative pay raise in Springfield in 1980, he pushed for the constitutional amendment that reduced the size of the house and changed the way legislators are elected. It hasn't saved taxpayers money, as he claimed it would, but it has concentrated power in the hands of party leaders, making the General Assembly stodgier and less open to compromise.

Quinn never used to have much money to run on; a failed bid for lieutenant governor in 1998 left him without "a pot to petition in," as Rick Pearson put it in the Tribune. Now his pot runneth over: he's gotten $8.2 million in contributions just since July (Brady has taken in $8.5 million in that period), and he can brag about commercials starring the president and the mayor. He's no longer, I suggested, outside the tent pissing in, as Lyndon Johnson used to say. And not only is he inside the tent now, he's—

"Ringmaster," he finished the thought eagerly.

Quinn spotted secretary of state Jesse White, approaching from a nearby table, and rose to meet him. "And there he is—I wouldn't be here without ya," the governor said.

"This is my man," White said as the two clasped hands.

"The moment I got in he called me up," Quinn said, "and he's been a steadfast supporter, and counselor, ever since."

"This man had represented the people of the state of Illinois with honor and distinction for a long period of time," White gushed. "And all of a sudden Blagojevich does something stupid, now he's thrust into the position of being the governor of the state of Illinois, inheriting a budget mess, and he has to make the crooked straight." He took a breath, looked right at Quinn. "So I want to thank you for taking on the responsibility."

"Thanks for the kind words," Quinn said, and White departed.

I asked Quinn if it had become harder to speak frankly, now that he had a position of power to preserve. "You always have to choose your words wisely," he said. "Every day there's someone from the press who wants your opinion, and you might pick your spots to express it. But I wouldn't say that I in any way cut back on my core convictions."

The previous Sunday, Quinn had participated in an election forum on the far south side, at Trinity United Church of Christ—the church formerly led by Jeremiah Wright. Three white men in dark suits sat in folding chairs at a table in the center of the church, each trying to persuade the nearly all-African-American audience why he would make the best governor. Quinn was in the middle, aptly flanked by the Green candidate on his left and the Libertarian candidate on his right. Bill Brady didn't show. For a Republican, looking for votes in Chicago's black neighborhoods is like searching for a contact lens in a forest preserve, and the Brady campaign had likely concluded his time would be spent better elsewhere.

What are Quinn's core convictions? He repeatedly emphasized that he and Obama were close. "I know how to work with President Obama, he supports me in this election, I've worked with him every day that I've been governor," Quinn said. "We got federal money this summer, $450 million for our schools, $550 million for our health care. You need to have a governor who can go to Washington, work with the president, have the support of the president to get more federal money back here."

His other main thrust was that Brady was dissing African-Americans by skipping this event, as he had an Urban League debate and a forum at a church in the west-side Austin neighborhood. "You know, 99 percent of life is showing up. I don't think there's any excuse for not showing up for a debate like this, it's just plain wrong." The crowd applauded.

The Libertarian candidate, Lex Green, got no such response. "We have to reduce spending in the government where we just keep the lights on," he said, and most other spending "needs to go away." Judging from the stony silence, the audience seemed to want Green to go away.

But Rich Whitney, the Green candidate, was potential trouble for Quinn. Whitney answered questions more directly than the governor did, and won louder applause.

"We keep hearing that the state's broke," Whitney said. "The state's not broke. Our government's broke. We have a lot of wealth in this state if we tax correctly. I'm gonna lead that fight. . . . You need a Robin Hood for your next governor who's going to take from the rich and give to the poor, because right now the rich are getting a free ride." He vowed to push for a transaction tax on speculative trading and to reform the tax structure so that the wealthier paid a bigger share of taxes than they do now.

When I asked Quinn later about Whitney's proposed transaction tax, he quickly dismissed it as something only an outsider had the luxury of proposing. "It sounds good if you say it fast, but there's just no votes for that. If you're governor you can say I have a list of things to do—but if people aren't gonna vote for it, you gotta go to Plan B."

The candidates were asked how they would achieve their agendas, given the widely presumed control of state government by house speaker Mike Madigan. Quinn responded as if Madigan took orders from him. "I tell speaker Mike Madigan and [senate] president John Cullerton what my issues are, and we've been able to get them passed into law," he said. He touted a "landmark" weatherization program he worked with Madigan and Cullerton to broaden, which brought jobs to local communities. "We don't want [residents] using illegal guns, we want them using caulking guns," he said.

The governor, of course, has not managed to get all of his issues passed into law. Take the income tax increase, from 3 percent to 4.5 percent, that Quinn proposed in March 2009, six weeks after he became governor. Madigan's house rejected it, the Democratic majority notwithstanding. Now Quinn is seeking a 1 percent "education surcharge" to the income tax to benefit schools.

Whitney, outside the tent pissing in, went to the meat of the question. Madigan is "controlling the state with armloads of cash," he said. "Who better than a Green Party governor, who has no stake in either the Democratic or the Republican party machines, who refuses corporate campaign contributions, to start this housecleaning in earnest?"

Whitney said it was clear the Republicans were bent on "eviscerating our public sector"—their candidate for governor was calling for a 10 percent spending cut across the board. Then he pointed to state cuts in social programs and school funding in recent years. "What has the Democratic Party been doing after seven straight years of controlling the governorship and the General Assembly? Eviscerating our public sector."

Quinn closed on message. "I have the courage to come to every debate and make sure everyone knows where I stand. . . . I fought for people who don't have jobs, [for] our Put Illinois to Work program, a program that President Obama gave to us, and he supports me in this election."

Whitney, who felt stymied by the format of the event—90 seconds for opening and closing statements, 60 seconds for responses to questions—was happy to expand on his views afterward on a sidewalk outside the church. (I tried to interview Bill Brady for this story as well; his campaign office promised twice to get back to me but never did.)

I asked Whitney, a 54-year-old lawyer, if he'd fled to the Greens from the Democrats. He said he'd never been a Democrat—said it vehemently, as if it were a disease. He was a member of the Socialist Labor Party after graduating from Michigan State; he edited the party's monthly journal, The People. "But I came to the not-too-startling revelation that American workers are never going to embrace something by that name," he said. He confessed to one Democratic dalliance: in 1994 a friend dragged him to a rally in southern Illinois for an African-American who was planning to run for governor—Roland Burris, then Illinois attorney general. "It was the most egotistical speech I ever heard in my life," Whitney recalled. "He didn't say one thing about what he was going to do as governor—it was 'I deserve this, I earned this, look at how great I am.' That only reinforced my inclination that there was no way I was ever going to work within the Democratic Party." Instead, in the mid-1990s he helped found the Illinois Green Party, writing much of its platform.

Four years ago he became the party's first candidate for governor, winning a surprising 10 percent of the vote. That made the Greens Illinois's third legally established party—giving them full statewide ballot access in 2008 and 2010. The established-party benefit is conferred on parties whose gubernatorial candidate wins at least 5 percent of the vote. But polls are indicating Whitney won't do nearly as well this year as in 2006, and may not even get the crucial 5 percent. In 2006 he was the only candidate on the ballot for governor other than Democrat Rod Blagojevich and Republican Judy Baar Topinka. This time there are also the Libertarian, Lex Green, and independent Scott Lee Cohen.

Cohen is a particular source of annoyance for Whitney. He's the millionaire realtor and pawnbroker who spent almost $2 million to win the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, withdrew from that race when dirt from his divorce files became news, then announced his run for governor instead. "A rebel without a clue," Whitney called him. "He's running a vanity campaign. He's able to buy all these ads, and he's coating the south side and the west side with his signs—so he's going to get a lot of the I'm-not-one-of-them votes, which normally would go to me."

Besides getting the crucial 5 percent, Whitney said he hopes the election will "instill confidence in the Green Party," and will "help overcome this psychology of defeat that tells people, 'We don't want to waste our vote, we have to vote lesser-evil.' If we can make strides against that, I would consider it a nice consolation prize."

Even Green Party candidates have their sound bites, and he reached for one he's been using on the campaign trail: "Do you want the continued slow torture of Pat Quinn, or do you want the quick beheading of Bill Brady?"

But he allowed that there was a big difference between Quinn and Brady, even as he insists there's a bigger chasm between himself and those two.

"I don't think Pat Quinn is a bad guy," Whitney said. "But he's a prisoner of the institution. I'm not faulting him personally, but it's his party." He said that if Quinn had aligned himself with "the real peoples' movements" that had been fighting for years for school-funding reform and tax reform, "instead of meekly begging for a 1 percent income tax increase—which wouldn't even get the job done—we wouldn't be in this situation. You aligned yourself with the corporate powers that fund your campaign in the Democratic party, and that's why you're not putting up anything more than this half-assed fight. I tell people, fight for what you believe in. Demand a whole loaf, and then if you have to compromise you'll still get half a loaf. But if you start out asking for half a loaf, you're gonna end up with crumbs—and that's exactly what we're getting."

There may be no tougher test of a true reformer than how he deals with criminal justice, an area of governance that lends itself to fear and demagoguery. In December 2009, 11 months into Quinn's governership, he was confronted with that test.

For years now, the biggest problem with Illinois's prison system has been its size. Twenty-five years ago, it held less than 18,000 prisoners, but the population spiraled, reaching nearly 45,000 by the year 2000. It stabilized during the last decade, but it's still far above the prisons' designed capacity of 31,000. Warehousing people is expensive: the state's prison budget is now $1.1 billion. Prison overcrowding results in more lockdown time and fewer rehabilitative programs.

Bad economic eras can be good eras for criminal justice reform. Strained state budgets prod government officials to consider more humane and productive ways of dealing with criminal offenders, and the potential cost savings can give the officials political cover. Throughout the nation states have been experimenting with community-based treatment alternatives to prison, an approach that the research group the Pew Center on the States credits with reducing the nation's state prison census last year. The decline was just .4 percent, but it was the first drop in the number of state prisoners in the U.S. in 38 years. lllinois's prison population fell by 313.

Department heads throughout Illinois government were under pressure last year to cut their budgets. In August 2009, Quinn's new director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, Michael Randle, instituted Meritorious Good Time Push, or MGT Push. It was a modest adjustment to MGT, an early-release program begun in the late 1970s under Republican governor James Thompson to relieve prison overcrowding. From 1979 through 1983, Thompson's prison director released almost 21,000 prisoners early, reducing the prison population by 2,500. A study later showed that prisoners released early did not have a higher probability of arrest or return to prison than those who served full prison terms. In fact, noted the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in a 2008 review of studies of such programs nationwide, "in some cases early release prisoners had lower rates of recidivism than full-term prisoners."

But prosecutors complained that the prison director was exceeding his authority; the Illinois Supreme Court agreed, ending the practice.

In the late 1980s Illinois again faced severe overcrowding, due largely to a jump in convicted drug offenders. The legislature revised the law in 1990 to allow accelerated release credits of up to 180 days, and the early release practice resumed. Inmates convicted of murder are ineligible for MGT, and there are restrictions on the amount of MGT available for those convicted of other serious offenses.

"Meritorious Good Time" has always been a disingenuous term: most of those released early are low-level offenders, and keeping them in prison long enough to evaluate whether they "merit" early release would defeat the key purposes of the program, which are to save money and keep prison overcrowding from dangerous levels. Department of Corrections policy had previously required prisoners to serve 60 days before they could get MGT credit. Randle's MGT Push shortened this waiting period to 11 days. The actual reduction in prison time of inmates who benefited from MGT Push was just 36 days. The policy was expected to save $3.4 million annually.

On December 13, 2009, the Associated Press claimed it had unearthed a "secret change in policy" by Quinn's prison system that was resulting in the release of "repeat drunk drivers, drug users and even people convicted of battery and weapons violations" who'd served less than three weeks behind bars.

Randle hadn't called a press conference to announce the new policy, but it wasn't a secret; it was described clearly in memos circulated throughout the department at the time it was implemented. Those who'd served less than three weeks had been released because their sentences were short to begin with, not because of the new program, which, again, was shortening terms by just a little over a month.

But the floodgates opened. The Daily Herald in Arlington Heights blasted the "breach of trust that jeopardizes our safety." The Cook County state's attorney's office warned that the releases "could threaten public safety or increase crime."

The Democratic primary was two months away, and here was an issue Quinn's opponent, state comptroller Dan Hynes, could run with. He demanded an investigation at once "given the potential immediate safety risk to communities across Illinois."

The governor leapt into damage-control mode, ordering the immediate suspension of MGT Push. He appointed a committee to review not only that program but early release in Illinois more generally. The committee had barely formed when it gave Quinn the preliminary recommendations he needed to act, and he did so with dispatch: on December 30 he terminated MGT Push and ordered an overhaul of all of Illinois's early-release programs. MGT Push was "a big mistake," he said at a press conference, the result of the "bad judgment" of his prisons director, Randle. In early January he established two new supervisory positions—a chief public safety officer in the Department of Corrections and a public safety liaison officer in the governor's office—and appointed esteemed law-enforcement veterans to fill them. And on January 15 his Department of Corrections suspended the entire MGT program, pending further review.

Since MGT Push was a modest program, its termination had a negligible effect on the size of the prison population. Not so the suspension of the broader and long-standing MGT program. Because of its suspension, Illinois's prison population is no longer declining—instead, it's now growing at an alarming rate. In the first nine months of this year it swelled from 45,000 to 48,000 prisoners.

This has already cost Illinois tens of millions of dollars, and could cost the state another $158 million between now and July 2012, according to projections by Malcolm Young, director of prison reentry strategies for Northwestern University law school's Bluhm Legal Clinic. And that's in operating costs alone; it doesn't include the price of building another prison, which Young said could become necessary if MGT isn't reinstated.

The toll isn't just in dollars. Besides more reliance on lockdown and fewer rehabilitative programs, the consequences of prison overcrowding include increased barriers to health care for prisoners, greater spread of infectious disease, and more mental breakdowns and suicides.

And there is the greater risk of riots. In a prison in Chino, California, 250 inmates were hurt, 55 of them hospitalized, after a riot broke out in August 2009. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called it "a terrible symptom of a much larger problem, a much larger illness." California's prison system was "collapsing under its own weight," he said. "Our prisons are overcrowded and endangering the staff and the inmates."

Young, who has spent months reviewing the MGT controversy, said he thinks that without the MGT pressure-release valve, the risks are mounting in Illinois. "It's a very volatile situation."

Brady has attacked Quinn throughout the campaign for the accelerated release program, calling it "one of the greatest lapses in public safety in recent history." So should Brady win election, he's not likely to reinstitute MGT. But given the corner Quinn has backed himself into, he might not do so either, at least not quickly. Amid a new flurry of attack ads from Brady this month on MGT, Quinn assured a reporter that reinstituting early release was not on his "radar screen."

In a report Young released this week, he concluded: "Illinois has become a textbook example of what can happen when politics overrides sound policy and facts yield to hyperbole in criminal justice decision-making."

But what could Quinn have done? If he hadn't clobbered early release the way he did, would he have even survived the primary? As it was, he won it by only 8,000 votes out of 916,000 cast.

It's not just entrenched political parties fattened by corporations that impede reform. Politicians of all stripes accentuate their devotion to the public will—but the public will can be uninformed, parochial, fickle, and driven by fear and self-interest. Sometimes—perhaps often—leadership should mean not giving in to what the public is clamoring for. But try finding a politician willing to acknowledge that—or voters who will elect him.

At Petro's, Quinn insisted that his handling of the MGT controversy "doesn't mean we are in any way moving backward on the whole idea of corrections reform. We really see the future as alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders. We have to look at different consequences for bad behavior."

Under "issues" on the governor's campaign website, visitors can read his positions on women's and gays' rights, jobs and growth, veterans and military families, health care, ethics and reform, environment and green energy, and education—most everything but criminal justice. I asked why; Quinn sidestepped the question, pointing to his Put Illinois to Work program, which he said employed "a number" of ex-offenders.

I asked him what he'd learned from his 21 months as governor that would benefit him if he wins a full term.

"What I learned is, even after perhaps the worst crisis that state government ever had, politicians in both parties were doing politics," he said, "and the common good was off in the distance. Maybe I was naive in thinking that everyone would come together after this crisis. It was a little bit like Watergate, where the president had to resign." Quinn said that after he was sworn in as governor, he'd read some of the speeches Gerald Ford gave after succeeding Richard Nixon. "He was trying to appeal to the nation, and to people in Congress, to work together and bind the wounds. That was probably naive, because within 24 hours, politicians within both parties were doing what they do—all politics, all the time."

If he wins the election, Quinn said, it will vindicate "my approach of the common good comes first, politics is at the end of the line." It will be a mandate from the electorate he can use in his dealings with the power brokers in Springfield. "I'll tell 'em, 'Listen, you guys were wrong, I was right, the people really do want fundamental reform, let's get going here, I'm not gonna let you wander off into the political fields.' I kept insisting on that the last two years and I'm still here. And now we're gonna do what's right for Illinois, not just what's right for you politically."   

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