SPRINGFIELD — After years on the fringes of power, Pat Quinn was in the right place when the bottom dropped out of Illinois state government.
At a time when the citizens of the nation's 5th largest state were grappling with the election of a favorite son president in Barack Obama and the subsequent downfall of Rod Blagojevich, Quinn’s ascension to the top spot in state government in 2009 mirrored the roller-coaster nature of Illinois politics.
His six years as the state’s accidental governor were no less than the same topsy-turvy, whiplash-inducing experience Illinois voters have come to expect from the people they elect to rule the state.
As Quinn now hands over the reins of power to Republican Bruce Rauner, analysts, lawmakers and political observers say Quinn leaves a mixed legacy.
“When he knew something was right, he didn’t care about the political maneuvering,” said state Rep. Marcus Evans, D-Chicago, adding, "Being passionate is a double-edged sword. Governing is about taking wins and losses. It didn’t always work out.”
From the governor's advocacy of an unpopular income tax increase to his attempts to tackle the state’s nagging public employee pension problems, Quinn is walking away from his role having made tough decisions that may have helped the state but hurt his chances of remaining its leader.
“He started to restore some confidence in the state,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “He had the integrity to stand up and change his mind on the tax increase. That wasn’t popular, I think it took some integrity for him to say ‘we gotta have this money.'”
To be sure, Quinn came to power with Illinoisans in a state of political shock. Along with the scandal and subsequent impeachment brought on by Blagojevich’s behavior, the state's economy was in shambles, thanks to the Great Recession and myriad financial problems that had accumulated over decades.
Quinn leaves at age 66, claiming his leadership has helped turn some of those problems around.
“When I took office on January 29, 2009, the Illinois economy was in a deep recession. Today, our economy is significantly stronger,” he noted in a news release issued last week.
Quinn, who also served four years as state treasurer and six as lieutenant governor, compiled a record in his time as chief executive that includes a number of progressive wins, including banning the death penalty, legalizing gay marriage and boosting the state income tax.
During his watch, the state also legalized medical marijuana, video gambling and the concealed carry of weapons. He also led the charge to overhaul the state’s financially troubled employee retirement programs.
But Quinn also was often overshadowed by his counterparts in the Legislature.
“I think a lot of what was accomplished during his tenure, were initiatives that he wasn’t really out in front on," said Ron Michaelson, the former executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections.
He also angered voters with some of his decisions.
As part of a budget cutting move in 2012, Quinn closed prisons in Tamms and Dwight, claiming millions of dollars of savings at a time when the state was struggling to pay its bills.
“People will remember that he closed the prisons,” Yepsen said.
Quinn made other political moves in his populist style that failed to gain traction. At one point, Quinn cut lawmaker pay hoping to force them to act on pension reform.
“I think withholding their pay was a silly move,” Yepsen said. “His lack of an ability to deal with the legislators hurt his ability to get things done.”
State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said Quinn will be remembered better for how he came into office than what he did in office.
“He was a populist governor who made populist decisions rather than manage the government that he was in control of," Barickman said.
“Illinois went through some dark years ethically and I think many would be thankful for Gov. Quinn’s service to help pull us through some of that," Barickman added.
State Rep. Adam Brown, R-Champaign, is still angry about how Quinn politicized an announcement about a fertilizer factory choosing to locate in Tuscola.
The unveiling of the Cronus Chemical plant's choice came as Quinn and Rauner headed down the home stretch of a tough and expensive election.
"He used it purely for political gain," Brown said. "I think we can only move up from here. I think we can do much better as a state."
But state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, said Quinn was good for the Quad Cities, providing state assistance for a Western Illinois University campus and cash for major road and bridge projects.
"A lot of that is because of Gov. Quinn," said Jacobs, who was defeated in November. "I think Quinn was a good public servant."
Michaelson said Quinn departs without having brought stability to the state budget.
“We’re still in a major, major hole that’s going to take years to get out of," Michaelson said.
Yepsen said Quinn may be remembered in a better light as time goes by.
“I think governor legacies are a little like presidential ones,” Yepsen said. “It takes a little time for the dust to settle.”